“Following her beautifully impressionistic debut ‘Rain’ and the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle ‘Sylvia,’ New Zealand director Christine Jeffs lands somewhere in between with ‘Sunshine Cleaning,’ an affecting, well-acted drama that casts an even brighter spotlight on rising starlet Amy Adams,” indieWIRE‘s Anthony Kaufman wrote upon the film’s world premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. “First seen in slow-motion, dressed in a pink uniform and determinedly carrying an array of cleaning supplies as she charges forward, she is a priceless picture of feminine distress—one that helps carry the film, in its manic alterations between perky and pathetic.”
Well over a year – and another Oscar nomination for Adams – later, Overture Films is finally releasing “Cleaning,” patiently awaiting a Spring release in a similar vein to how it went about last year’s indie hit “The Visitor.”
“Cleaning,” despite Kaufman’s aforementioned claims, is not receiving the near-universal love “The Visitor” found on its release. The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, like many, many other reviewers, sets up his generally negative review by comparing “Cleaning” to another Sundance alum with which it shares remarkable similarities.
“I’m thinking of a movie,” Scott says. “Wait, don’t tell me, it’s on the tip of my tongue. It takes place in Albuquerque. There’s a beat-up old van, a lot of family dysfunction, a cute kid, a get-rich-quick scheme that doesn’t quite work out as planned. Alan Arkin is the grandpa. The title? Something about “Sunshine.” No, not that one. “Little Miss Sunshine” came out in 2006. Why on earth would I be reviewing it now? I’m wondering that myself. A better title for the movie I am supposed to review — for the record, it’s “Sunshine Cleaning,” directed by Christine Jeffs from a script by Megan Holley — would be “Sundance Recycling,” since the picture is less a free-standing independent film than a scrap-metal robot built after a shopping spree at the Park City Indie Parts and Salvage Warehouse.”
He goes on to say that “all in all, it’s a mess, and much as Ms. Blunt pouts, Ms. Adams twinkles, and Mr. Arkin growls, there’s nothing they can do to clean it up.”
For the record, a less “Little Miss”-specific synposis would go as follows: The film follows former high school cheerleading captain Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams), now a thirtysomething single mother working as a maid. Her sister Norah (Emily Blunt), is still living at home with their dad Joe (Alan Arkin). In a bid get her son into a better school, Rose and Norah get into the crime scene clean-up business to make some quick cash.
“The film’s secondhand feel wouldn’t be so problematic if it had a sense of urgency, but director Christine Jeffs’ ambitions begin and end with transferring Megan Holley’s earnest script from the page to the screen,” The A.V. Club‘s Nathan Rabin – also using “Little Miss” references throughout his review, says. “There is a time and a place for scruffy independent also-rans like this, and that time and place is the 2 a.m. slot on IFC.”
Variety‘s Todd McCarthy is also rather disenchanted. “Director Christine Jeffs,” he notes, “tries to strike a balance between the yarn’s dark currents and offbeat comedy, but the result is often uneasy, with the humor receding as things progress.”
However, he does note that “the film is in good measure saved by the leads, especially Adams, who proves once again what a sparkling, irresistible screen presence she has.”
The performances – both Adams’ and Blunt’s – are praised in nearly every major review – including a decent amount of more positive ones. Lisa Schwarzbaum (who, I must continue to note, opens with two paragraphs discussing the other “Sunshine”), says in her review for Entertainment Weekly: “Truly lovely performances by Adams and Blunt pierce the thoroughly artificial climate. New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley were lucky to land these two talents when the film went into production back in 2007, just after Blunt broke through in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ but long before Adams’ Oscar-nominated turn in ‘Doubt.’ As blooming Rose, Adams taps into a delicate vein of warmth and humor that makes her every reaction fresh; we may not understand why this arbitrarily thwarted character has settled for so little, but we cheer for Adams in the role.”
Slate‘s Dana Stevens actually spins a positive out of the “Little Miss” comparison, starting out with “even though you’ve seen this movie already, you should see it again.” Highlighting the performances, Stevens notes that “Adams and Blunt are just as determined to make this movie work as the Lorkowskis are to better their lot in life. Their luminescence and pluck, not to mention those two hypnotizing sets of eyeballs, carry the day.”
The film’s most positive review comes care of The Los Angeles Times‘ Betsy Sharkey (who remarkably makes through 90% of her review before mentioning the inevitable). “Thanks to Holley’s screenplay,” she writes, “there are themes aplenty running through “Sunshine Cleaning,” such as how a family copes with the tragedies of the past and new ones in the making and the way older sisters think they are required to look after things. It is a story with economic lessons everywhere, a fitting eulogy for the culture of greed and a reminder that hard work — not miracles — will save you. When it all comes together, you are left with a tableau of hope, humor and a truth-telling reality that is a salve for the recessionary soul.”