April 10, 2009

Crime Scenes and a Touch of Sunshine

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There’s a lot of talk at the end of the year about Oscar-baiting. Epic films with dark themes and scenery-chewing performances abound; it’s a time for “serious” films about fresh concepts like the mentally challenged and the Holocaust, or the odd deifying biopic about a drug-addled, recently deceased musical icon.
Well, now there’s Sundance-baiting. The “quirky” films featuring no-name actors aside Hollywood giants moonlighting in miscast sagas about oddball misfit characters engaging in topsy-turvy meditations on life, relationships and art. Shit happens, indie songwriters jangle in the background, and everything ends on a quizzically upbeat, if not offbeat note. A great example? Little Miss Sunshine.
And so, the creators have returned to bait the awards again, copying the formula. You’ve got a movie with “sunshine” in the title, a bleak Southwestern setting, similar scenes of two individuals awkwardly lifting an object (except instead of a dead body; this time it’s the mattress once supporting a dead body), strange but likable fringe individuals, and … Alan Arkin (who won a long overdue Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine) playing … the age-defying grandfather. Again. Giving a motivational speech to a struggling elementary-aged kid. Again.
Wow. It’s like watching the last two Austin Powers movies back to back.
But all the griping about formula needs to rest. Movies can be about the Holocaust, win easy Academy Awards, and still be good (Schindler’s List, NOT The Reader). Who says a familiar Sundance dramedy can’t follow the same principle?
Amy Adams (Doubt, Enchanted) sure doesn’t. She gives the second performance of a lifetime in her second role of the year. She plays Rose Lorkowski the star of Sunshine Cleaning, a down-on-her luck cleaning lady/single mother. Lorkowski embodies the spirit of the movie. She has her faults, her hopes, her reality and her positive attitude all tucked into an intense rollercoaster of life and plays the part note for note. English actress Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) dons a convincing American accent and some dark eye shadow to play Rose’s slacker younger sister, Norah. They tag-team raising Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack) and caring for their get-rich-quick scheming father (Arkin). Oscar displays ADD tendencies and aberrant social behavior, and Rose is forced to pluck him out of another public school. Times are tough. Cleaning houses doesn’t pay the bills.
Rose is having an affair with her now-married high school sweetheart, Mac (the always-wonderful Steve Zahn), a local detective that knows how lucrative the bio-hazard removal business is. Throwing her a bone, he calls a few friends and provides Rose the opportunity to make a decent wage cleaning … crime scenes. Bits of bodies and the fun fluids inside. Norah, who is recently fired, gets roped in. They open “Sunshine Cleaning” without knowing the first thing about what they’re getting into. The title was Rose’s idea.
Crime-scene cleaning is quite a foul business. The movie does not shy away from shots of shotgun-sprayed walls soaked in blood. The movie also exploits every possible slapstick situation that could occur involving two inexperienced young women attempting to navigate and handle such sights and sites. Hence, the mattress. I wonder if anyone falls on the dark spot where a human carcass spent two weeks decaying?
That being said, storylines branch out. Rose and Norah lost their mother at a young age, and the movie deals with that sordid history and the sisters complex growing up by depicting their imperfect (but thankfully convincing) sex lives. Rose is chasing after a dream from the past. Norah is chasing her own tail. Both are strong women being beat down by the world. They’re not victims. They’re opening a business and fighting back, trying to fix a little part of the world or at least themselves. But there’s always more to clean.
Rose gets invited to a baby shower, a sort of high school reunion, facing old friends who have since acquired picket fences and minivans. Norah breaks an ethical boundary and takes some family pictures from a cleanup site, then attempts to track down the estranged daughter, only to find there’s a real person at the end of that foreboding road. Oscar, spending time with his grandfather, reveals to the audience what we suspect all along: he’s bright. Of course the big, evil, socialist public school system would misunderstand him and attempt to medicate away his individuality. Right? Right?
All that being said, the movie’s conclusion is satisfying, because characters do grow and change, and remain true to themselves throughout the process. Adams is a tour de force and Blunt tries to break her character’s stereotype-prone image and does a good job keeping up. Arkin and Zahn are masters as expected. The most interesting character is the man who owns the bio-cleaning supply store, Winston (veteran bit-part method actor Clifton Collins, Jr.). One-armed, with a store of model airplanes in the back, he could become a caricature, a typical oddball (if there is such a thing), or a one-joke gag like some characters in Little Miss Sunshine verged on. But Sunshine Cleaning keeps things fresh.