The bored, middle-aged women taking a break from shopping for an after-lunch sneak preview screening had come to see the girl from Enchanted and the girl from The Devil Wears Prada in their new movie. As the gasps and “Oh-mi-god”s filled the theater during the first scene, it became clear that these women may not have been aware of the film’s premise, that the pristine pair would soon be tidying up the incidental mess after their “clients’” murders and suicides – like the one they just bore witness to.
It’s a ballsy way to start a movie that, despite its low-key indie vibe, is a fairly mainstream comedy, one not shy to tout its Little Miss Sunshine pedigree.
Sunshine Cleaning stars Emily Blunt and Amy Adams as Norah and Rose Lorkowski, two sisters in desperate need of money who start a cleaning service catering to post-mortem cleanup. The idea for the business is suggested by Mac (Steve Zahn), a police detective who was Rose’s high-school sweetheart, but is now married with children. He still sees Rose on the side while Norah thinks she’s at class. Mac’s wife knows the situation, but wears blinders to it out of a suburban fear of loneliness.
Naturally repulsed by the job description upon first hearing about it, they dive into the decay and detritus headfirst when Rose’s son, the rambunctious Oscar (Jason Spevack), is pulled out of an incompetent school and put in the care of their father, Joe (Alan Arkin), until other arrangements can be made.
The delicacy of the blood-and-guts job hits the emotionally fragile Norah hard. When she finds a fanny pack full of pictures of a departed client’s daughter, the guilt of her own family’s tragedy kicks in, the industrial-strength cleaning solvent starts to erode the wall she’s built up between herself and her past, and she cannot help but save them from the incinerator, against the strict rules of the trade, and try to return them to the girl (Mary Lynn Rajskub).
Director Christine Jeffs’ brilliant casting takes everything we thought we knew about the pair’s prim princess and posh career girl personas and turns it right on its head. To see Adams scrubbing blood off a mirror and Blunt vomiting as a (rational) reaction instead of as a weight-loss measure is deliriously funny, but surprisingly not a one-note gag. It’s played for laughs sparingly once we get beneath the girls’ outer layers and dig into their stories.
It’s a concept that most of us can relate to in one way or another – though maybe not in ways as horrifying as cleaning up brain tissue. We’ve all done jobs that went against our personal sense of self because of human need; money is the key to all of our desires as well as our basic survival. Jeffs has crafted a brave, evocative work that fits neatly into the debt-burdened zeitgeist while offering a jarring possible reality, something the down-and-out in this grim economy might actually look into as a possibility. Hey, it beats flippin’ burgers.