Sunshine Cleaning (R) (92 min.) — Nice to see Amy Adams getting naughty, after playing a fairy tale princess and a nun. Always good to watch Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) staking another claim among the finest actors of her generation. Together they make Christine Jeffs' oddball dramedy more than the Little Miss Sunshine clone that some critics dismissed it as since Sundance.
There are strong similarities: a dysfunctional Albuquerque, N.M., family led by a crusty patriarch (Alan Arkin again), a precocious kid (Jason Spevack) and family skeletons rattling in the background. The title could also use a tweak to avoid confusion. You might think the producers — including former Tampa resident Glenn Williamson — are merely cashing in, until seeing the movie.
Adams plays Rose Lorkowski, a former high school ingenue who became least likely to succeed. She cleans luxurious houses for a living, sometimes for ex-classmates who barely hide their surprise at who's scrubbing their toilets. Rose still enjoys sex with her quarterback boyfriend (Steve Zahn), now a married father stringing her along. Her son Oscar (Spevack) is a bright kid, bored into misbehaving at school.
Part of his problem is Aunt Norah (Blunt), an irresponsible type who can't hold a job or her tongue among polite company. There's friction between the sisters but also a palpable bond, thanks to the convincing actors and Megan Holley's deceptively insightful script. Not much happens in Sunshine Cleaning but everything matters.
The sisters start a new business, cleaning crime scenes and occasionally homes where people died peacefully. Each messy assignment reminds them of a shared childhood trauma; Rose appears to ignore it while Norah harbors her grief. Jeffs locates the humor underneath such behavior without cheapening it. The jokes make the sisters' pain even more acute.
Sunshine Cleaning is barely 90 minutes long, necessitating resolutions that feel too tidy, especially when Norah secretly projects her maternal loss upon a woman (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who sees the concern as something romantic. Rose and Oscar start an interesting friendship with a one-armed shop owner (Clifton Collins Jr.) deserving an entire movie itself. Arkin is still an actor who's never on screen enough.
But there's a ragtag beauty and honesty to Sunshine Cleaning that occasionally surpasses Little Miss Sunshine for quirky effectiveness. Best of all there's Adams and Blunt making their characters more than oddballs on a screenplay page. As the pieces of their shattered psyches gradually reassemble, Rose and Norah become sisters tentatively doing it for themselves. B+
Steve Persall, Times film critic