People complain that Hollywood movies don’t give audiences enough credit, that nuance is lost in giant spectacles full of special effects and stuff blowing up, but so-called indie movies can be just as pedantic and on-the-nose, without even the occasional explosion to distract you. Take Sunshine Cleaning, a perfectly innocuous dramedy that garnered a bit of buzz at Sundance last year and is now getting a moderately wide release. It was produced independently, although its cast is full of recognizable faces, and it has an aura of seriousness thanks to Sundance. It features no special effects and no explosions, although there is a fairly large house fire at one point. Yet it’s just as unsubtle as a Michael Bay movie, hand-holding its audience through emotions rather than action sequences, and at times just as irritating.
At least it has one thing going for it over your average Michael Bay movie: decent acting. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt acquit themselves nicely as sisters Rose and Norah Lorkowski, both drifting their way through life in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rose works for a house-cleaning service and is having a desultory affair with her ex-boyfriend from high school, now married (to someone else) with kids. Norah can barely hold a job and is still living with the sisters’ cranky father (Alan Arkin), who spends his days trying out questionable business schemes.
Adams’ natural effervescence and Blunt’s tart world-weariness come through well, but Megan Holley’s dot-connecting screenplay and Christine Jeffs’ inert direction eventually leave them stranded. Rose and Norah are clearly carrying around a Big Secret From the Past, one that all-too-neatly dovetails with Rose’s starting of the titular company, a business dedicated to cleaning up the aftermaths of crime scenes. Holley and Jeffs mine some mild comedy from the sisters’ early attempts at mopping up viscera, but their learning curve is generally pretty smooth. At least there aren’t any nasty gross-out moments.
There aren’t a whole lot of laughs elsewhere in the movie, either; Arkin recycles his irascible-grandpa persona from the much more lively Little Miss Sunshine as the Lorkowski patriarch, but even his semi-salty advice to Rose’s annoyingly precocious son Oscar (Jason Spevack) is pretty toothless. Instead of humor, we get labored symbolism, including a CB radio that Oscar believes allows him to talk to heaven, the aforementioned house fire (telegraphed in a head-slappingly obvious way) and of course the business itself, a big, clumsy metaphor for Rose and Norah’s unspoken (well, at first) need to clean up the nasty mess from their own childhood.
The plot moves sluggishly along through its overdetermined motions, with two romantic subplots that are relatively underplayed. In the first, Rose flirts lightly with the one-armed proprietor of a janitorial-services store where she buys supplies for the business; in the other, Norah inadvertently encourages the romantic advances of the daughter of one of the dead women the sisters have cleaned up after. Neither thread goes anywhere, but each feels like the seed of a good story, far more so than the one that actually dominates the film, which by the end is resolved as tidily as any much-derided Hollywood product.