"Sunshine Cleaning" is fitted with a promising, ultimately unfulfilled, high concept. It's about two strapped-for-cash sisters: Rose (Amy Adams), a single mom and former Albuquerque high school prom queen; and her wayward sibling Norah (Emily Blunt); who go into the crime scene cleanup business. They scrub down the blood and the guts and get paid well for it.
You might think this would set the stage for a black comedy, but director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley opt for a less showy, more mundane approach. The sisters' occupation is presented as a job of work. And no doubt it is. It would have been over the top to have Rose and Norah gasping and heaving every time they descend upon a scene.
But the movie errs on the side of caution. Little is made of Rose and Norah's distaste, particularly after the first couple of jobs. They might as well be maids working at the local Holiday Inn. The filmmakers set up a showpiece premise and then deliberately play it down in the interests of a misguided verity; drab realism is the order of the day.
It's not even a convincing realism. It's difficult to imagine anyone as personable and attractive as Rose, who still has her prom queen allure, having to scrounge for work in the biohazard business. No matter. The filmmakers pile on the woes. She's carries on in cheap motel rooms with a married cop (Steve Zahn). Her precocious 7-year-old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack) is a handful; so is her eccentric dad (Alan Arkin), with whom Norah discontentedly lives.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, think "Little Miss Sunshine." Like that film, this one features a dysfunctional family, a gross-out premise, and Alan Arkin doing his daffy oldster routine. "Sunshine Cleaning," in fact, was produced by the same folks who gave us "Little Miss Sunshine" (a movie I thought wildly overrated, though better than this one). What's next on the schedule, a comedy set in Florida called "Sunshine State"? What about a remake of "The Sunshine Boys"?
To make sure we get the point that this sunlight is beclouded, the filmmakers throw in a welter of serioso complications. The sisters' mother died years ago, in what Norah euphemistically describes as a "do-it-yourself" exit, and we are subjected to repeated flashbacks of the two toddlers gamboling on the lawn before disaster strikes.
In a subplot that goes nowhere, at least nowhere interesting, Norah, under false pretenses, befriends a woman (Mary Lynn Rajskub) whose mother was a victim in one of the crime scene mop-ups. There is also much prom queen pathos when Rose confronts the low-key disdain of her former classmates.
But don't fret. On the sunshine side, there's a kindly one-armed cleaning supplies store clerk (well played by Clifton Collins Jr.) to look after Oscar when his mom is in a bind.
In a movie that so often seems trumped up beyond the point of believability, the one fresh note is the pairing of Adams and Blunt. They actually seem like sisters here, not only in how they look together but also in the ways they move and parry and tussle.
Blunt doesn't overdo the misfit shtick. Her Norah seems like a woman deeply out of sorts – her whole life is a kind of crime scene. Adams, who has heretofore been known primarily for being ethereally charming, is convincingly intemperate here.
Rose wants to do right by everybody but she can't quite get the hang of happiness. She looks into the mirror and intones, "You are strong, you are powerful, you can do anything," but her wallow with the married cop tells another story. She has a poignant gumption, though. We believe her when she tells people that she enjoys her cleanup work because it allows her to console people whose lives have become "profound and sad." The best thing to come out of "Sunshine Cleaning" is the confirmation that Adams, one of Hollywood's most delightful comediennes, is also capable of piercing drama. Grade: B- (Rated R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use.)