Even though it’s not very good, if “Sunshine Cleaning” had been released in 2018, it would have been a smash hit. Amy Adams’ starpower would guide the movie to box office success, and even though Emily Blunt wasn’t fully famous ten years ago, she would provide ample British charm necessary to woo today’s critics. But this movie was released in 2008, a time when the world was still gripped by the hypnotic indie fog of “Little Miss Sunshine,” where audiences craved every quirk their moviegoing buck could buy. “Sunshine Cleaning” tries to sniff up all that pungent indie aroma possible, even having one of the actors, one of the vans, and one of the words from “Little Miss Sunshine.” But what “Sunshine Cleaning” doesn’t realize is that its road-tripping mentor from 2005 succeeded not because it was super serious, but because it was super fun.
The premise of “Sunshine Cleaning” is hilarious, but the execution delivers no laughs. Amy Adams plays Rose, a single mother whose career interests include cleaning other people’s houses and whose romantic life with a married detective is close-to-flatlining. Rose discovers there’s a pretty penny to be earned in cleaning up the residual blood and guts from murders, suicides and other gruesome what have yous. With a rusted brown van and her untrustworthy white sister Norah (Emily Blunt), Rose is fully-equipped to bank off of the biohazard cleaning scene.
As we watch Rose juggle her business and parental responsibilities and Norah try to avoid any responsibility of her own, our enjoyment is left in the darkness of “Sunshine Cleaning’s” failed narrative. The movie tries to embrace a “life is strange, roll with the punches” mantra but its chief gurus don’t conjure spirited, cinematic fulfillment. Rose is fairly uninteresting and Norah feels like her character description was three lines too short on the script onesheet. Their dad Joe, played by Alan Arkin, also feels like he’s defined by tropes, a failing, elderly entrepreneur who can only afford discounted lines of semi-witty dialogue.
The movie is set in Albuquerque but could really take place in any mid-sized city, proving that where the characters live is as unimportant as the characters themselves. The most interesting character, a one-armed cleaning salesman named Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), gets stopped halfway on his dramatic arc. He’s an individual who deserves a better backstory and regular story, his emotional potential thwarted by “Sunshine Cleaning” trying to keep Rose in the spotlight at all times.
Ten years later, this is still the most recent filmmaking endeavor of writer Megan Holley and director Christine Jeffs. Prior to “Sunshine Cleaning,” their film efforts were more in the vein of literary and sci-fi stuff. They both know how to tell a good story, but “Sunshine Cleaning” isn’t the right type of story to be told by them. This a movie that demands laughter and joy and reassurance to counter its bleak and dreary vibe. If the film’s entire purpose is to get us to enjoy two people cleaning up biohazard scenes, you’re going to wipe those windows and walls with enough humor and hubris to get our smiles to shine bright afterwards.