How low are we going to go when things get really bad just in order to make ends meet? Most of us have been to desperation at one point or another during our lives. My memorable low point was being unemployed for six months with not much of a prospect for improvement; so I did take some pretty horrible casual jobs whose memory lingers on. In Sunshine Cleaning similar events take place upon the film's hero (the ever excellent Amy Adams of Enchanted and Doubt fame); her solution turns out similar to mine only worse. Unlike me she also perseveres, pushing as she goes one of the key messages Sunshine Cleaning tries to deliver: the question should not be "how low" can we go, but rather just how far, because as long as you're on the good side of ethics all's fair.
Adams plays a young beautiful woman who works in cleaning. In the beginning of the film we see her going through a series of events that push her to the limit: she ends up cleaning the house of an old school friend who's now married, pregnant and obviously well off; that friend asks her how she's doing and whether she married the school's quarterback she used to date. Adams lies; she's actually having an affair with that quarterback, seeing him in cheap motel rooms while at home the guy has a pregnant wife. Then Adams' fatherless child is having issues at school that force her to take him out and look for a private alternative. With only her very teen minded sister (Emily Blunt) and her ever looking to make the killer deal but ever unlucky father (Alan Arkin) to help, Adams needs a quick win.
She gets it through the quarterback now policeman friend, who points her to the money to be made from cleaning crime scenes up. It's hard, but it's not that different to what she normally does, so Adams goes for it - in a partnership with her sister. As you can expect, things don't go that well - cleaning up after murders is not as "trivial" as it sounds.
The idea behind Sunshine Cleaning is not bad at all. On the face of it, there's ample room here for a brilliant statement about coping with life's harsh realities as well as some dark humor. However, the end result is a rather mixed bag. There are plenty of "death is a part of life" analogies hinting that through effort one can find hope even in the most troubled of times, but the overall message tends to be obscured and the comedy potential unfulfilled. Sunshine Cleaning is a drama, a nice drama, but a drama that could have been much more of a kicker.
One of my key problems with Sunshine Cleaning is to do with the way it contradicts itself. On one hand it advocates us not to use finances, a sterile office career and being married as key performance indicators when assessing a person; on the other hand it takes Adams a mighty long time to stop lying about her finances. I'm not sure she even got the message by the end of the film, even as she's using family and friends to keep afloat. Then again, I always say how family and friends are important, but am I doing enough on that front? Surely not.
Best scene: Adams goes to a baby shower (an American term explained to me quite frequently) involving many of her now married and financially secure school friends. She goes as the underdog that has to impress them because she used to be the year's best looker, and she faces a tough crowd that reminds me a lot of the crowd in my own child mothers' group - [almost] all looking the same, [almost] all living the life expected of them, [almost] all in a state that warrants me to question just how conscious they really are of the universe around them. Then again, just how conscious am I?
Technical assessment: A mediocre DVD featuring stereo only sound (as opposed to 5.1) and no subtitles, helping us miss out on a few key lines through the less than great dialog sound.
Overall: Interesting yet more than somewhat disappointing at 3 out of 5 stars.