In a certain sense, the advertising campaign for Christine Jeffs' Sunshine Cleaning says pretty much everything you need to hear about the film. It's got Alan Arkin in it, you say? And the word "Sunshine" in the title? And it's brought to me by the producers of Little Miss Sunshine? Sounds quirky, and maybe just a little bit dark, but ultimately feel-good! Honey, call that indie movie theater to see if it'll be playing here any time soon!
There's more to Sunshine Cleaning (now playing at that indie movie theater) than distributor Overture Films' shamelessly transparent marketing department would lead you to believe. Based in part on a report from the radio news show All Things Considered, the film tells the mildly charming story of Rose and Laura Lorkowski (rising stars Amy Adams and Emily Blunt), two down-on-their-luck New Mexico sisters who go into business cleaning up bloody crime scenes after Rose's police detective boyfriend Mac (Steve Zahn, patron saint of middlebrow indie comedies) tips her off to its apparent lucrativeness.
Okay, so there's not too much more than that. Mildly diverting subplots abound: Rose's failed entrepreneur father (Arkin) and her son (Jason Spevack) pal around in some of the film's most casually funny scenes, while Laura reaches out to the grown daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of one of their deceased "clients." As for Rose, the hours not spent scrubbing up shut-in remnants are filled fretting over the opinions of an affluent former classmate and covering up her continued trysts with Mac, a high school sweetheart (she was the head cheerleader, he was the quarterback) who has long since settled down with another woman.
But these story threads are all just white noise, sewn indifferently into a decent scenario. A common—and thoroughly fair—criticism of self-consciously "indie" yarns like Little Miss Sunshine and its middling ilk is that they tend to come across as Mad Libs filled out in pursuit of quirkiness, irony, or simple preciousness, and to an extent Sunshine Cleaning seems dead-set on proving this hypothesis. For example: The cleaning supply shop owner has one arm and builds model airplanes; the little boy likes to lick things and thinks CB radios communicate with heaven; the blood bank attendant is a teetotaler and may be a lesbian.
In other movies, of course, these are called character traits, and we don't typically ridicule them. But here they reek of affectation for one critical reason: The film clearly values the quirk over the character. With the exception of Rose and Laura, Sunshine Cleaning's characters seem to exist solely to pad its running time, which explains why several of them repeatedly drop in and out of the story without a chance to really play their one note. Even when a scene clearly suggests a compelling tangent—does Winston have a chance with Rose? How does Mac's wife know? What are Laura's feelings for Lynn?—it's quickly abandoned in favor of the arbitrary, uninspired central narrative.
And there's the real problem. Much of the quirkiness could be forgiven as background color if the core elements were stronger. Again, the crime scene clean-up gig is a worthy enough gimmick to base a film around, but screenwriter Megan Holley's tone of undue sentimentality ends up running afoul of her scenario. The sisters' lingering, slowly revealed mommy issues come into direct conflict with the entire conceit, and Holley has not given her characters the depth to reconcile that. It's distancing, frankly, and the viewer is left to consider where else the movie might have gone. An offbeat love story, perhaps? Or the pitch-black comedy suggested by a clean-up competitor's passing comments about work-poaching amateurs?
Despite all this, Sunshine Cleaning doesn't court any lasting dislike; even in a decidedly minor turn, Adams' effervescence carries the movie, and it's good-natured and easy to watch besides. It is, however, an especially lazy and inconsequential indie comedy in a genre full of them. Overture Films home-video execs, feel free to quote when the time comes: "If you loved Little Miss Sunshine, you'll probably think Sunshine Cleaning is pretty okay!"