Adams is a scene stealer

'Cleaning' is film about family dysfunction *** (3 STARS)

March 27, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Amy Adams beguiled audiences in Junebug and Enchanted and breathed humanity into the histrionic Doubt. In the eccentric comedy-drama Sunshine Cleaning, set in the least picturesque parts of Albuquerque, N.M., she tops her own proven talent for epiphany.

As a 35-year-old single mother struggling through a pre-midlife crisis, she pinpoints the moment when maturity arrives. In the emotional peak, she stares at the upper-middle-class women swapping meaningless niceties at a baby shower and realizes she loves her unlikely new business: a biohazard removal/crime scene clean-up service. Her work connects her to suffering humanity. It makes her measure each breath as a matter of life and death. As she tries to describe it to these coddled housewives, her face radiates joy. Adams achieves perfect clarity, with a touch of the divine.

Fifteen years earlier, her character, Rose Lorkowski, was the high school cheerleader captain and homecoming queen. At the film's start, she's a wage-slave in a dead-end housemaid job she needs to pay the bills for herself and her bright, undisciplined son Oscar (Jason Spevack). She wakes up every morning reciting her virtues from a list attached to the bathroom mirror (like Al Franken's old Saturday Night Live character, Stuart Smalley). No one has pulled off the pathos of willed self-affirmation better than Adams does here. But even before she comes into her own, Rose displays streaks of audacious honesty. When she engages in motel sex with Mac (Steve Zahn), her married lover, the former high school quarterback who became a police detective, she asks him the question she really needs to know: why he chose his wife instead of her.

She does get something lasting out of Mac: At his suggestion, she goes into the biohazard/crime scene clean-up field in partnership with her bohemian, sometime-waitress sister Norah (Emily Blunt). The work is lucrative but the settings are often gory, foul and grotesque. The sisters are hilarious when they soldier on in their business, hauling and stumbling on a bloodstained mattress. They sometimes view contamination as a gross-out joke.

Before long, the job opens Rose's eyes; she blooms into self-reliance and forges a solid connection to the world. She offers instant empathy to survivors who grapple with abrupt and violent loss. Even the superficially feckless Norah finds herself haunted by the deceased and abandoned, including the mother of an opaque, oddly humorous and tough-minded phlebotomist (the always surprising Mary Lynn Rajskub).

Not everything about the film is elating or organic. Screenwriter Megan Holley freights the script heavily with metaphors and traumas. A CB radio functions in Rose's and Oscar's minds as a transmitter to heaven, and Norah climbs up a train trestle at night to scream out her anguish as the cars roll by. Yet the director, Christine Jeffs, and her gifted ensemble light up the dankest corners of the story, including the Lorkowskis' grim family secret.

Blunt, like Adams, displays considerable acting depth. She never mistakes deadpan humor for emotional blankness; she has reservoirs of warmth. She's bracing when Norah tells Rose that Mac will never leave his wife. She's beautifully silly when Norah scares Oscar with stories about a monster called the Lobsterman. And, as Oscar, Spevack is refreshing and unfussy. He displays extraordinary range, whether stirring up demand for a snack food being hyped by his salesman granddad Joe (Alan Arkin) or declaring to Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), the one-armed proprietor of a janitorial-supply service, that it must be difficult to put together scale models with one arm.

Collins is wonderful as Winston, a man so at ease with himself that he rouses Rose to an unremitting self-appraisal. Collins acts with magnetic containment: He creates a character who is both modest and the master of all he surveys. You can tell he's going to be part of the Lorkowskis' lives for a long time to come. In essence, Sunshine Cleaning is about a dysfunctional family that turns functional with a little help from their friends.

Sunshine Cleaning

(Overture Films) Starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin. Directed by Christine Jeffs. Rated R for language, sexuality, some disturbing images and drug use. Time 102 minutes.

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