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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A few weeks ago, during a sermon at church, my priest was talking about those crosses you sometimes see alongside the road. The crosses are placed there by families and friends to mark the spot where fatal traffic accidents occurred. He pointed out, correctly, that most of us think little of them, if we notice them at all, yet each one represents a devastating loss for somebody. If you took that idea and made a movie - a comedy, no less - from it, you'd have something like Sunshine Cleaning. Mary Poppins famously said that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and this film backs that idea up. It uses quirkiness and laughter as a means of dealing with some weighty death-related issues. It's still relatively early in the year, but this is definitely one of my favorite films so far in 2009.

Amy Adams plays Rose Lorkowski who, in high school, was head cheerleader and dated the quarterback. Now, years later, she's a single mother working as a house cleaner. She's still seeing the quarterback, Mac (Steve Zahn), but he's married to someone else. For Rose, life seems to have stopped at the exact moment it was supposed to begin. In addition to Rose, the Lorkowski family includes father Joe (Alan Arkin), who's always pursuing some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, and slacker sister Norah (Emily Blunt). They all live under the shadow of Mrs. Lorkowski's death; we sense that their collective failure to thrive is directly related to the shared loss they've suffered.

When her son Oscar (Jason Spevack) gets kicked out of school, Rose decides to enroll him in private school. However, she lacks money. That's when Mac, who's a cop, gives her a suggestion: since she already works as a cleaner, she could start her own business cleaning up crime scenes and other messy death sites. At first, Rose is skeptical, but Mac assures her there is serious money to be made. She enlists the help of the reluctant Norah, and together they start Sunshine Cleaning. When a crime of passion is perpetrated, they show up to wipe blood off the walls. When someone commits suicide, they mop up the bodily fluids. Amazingly to both of them, the women connect with the work. They somehow feel like they are making a difference, but at some level we know they are also coming to terms with their mother's passing by repeatedly looking death in the eye. This becomes profoundly evident when Norah surreptitiously befriends the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of a suicide victim whose home they clean up. Rose, meanwhile, turns to a one-armed cleaning supply business owner named Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.) for advice and guidance in the field.

This probably does not sound like a comedy, does it? Well, Sunshine Cleaning is certainly not a comedy in the same way that, say, Paul Blart: Mall Cop is, yet it definitely has moments of genuine humor. At times, the idea of two lovely young women cleaning up disgusting messes is played for laughs. Rose and Norah are both initially freaked out by the stuff they have to mop up. A scene where they haul a soiled mattress to a dumpster is particularly amusing. However, it's also kind of funny how they grow immune to what they're doing; it ceases to faze them. Laughs also come from their sibling bickering, Joe's half thought-out schemes, and Oscar's penchant for mischief. For me, the biggest laugh in the picture comes when Rose, in an attempt to feel "normal," attends a baby shower for a former high school classmate. During one of the shower games, which would nauseate anyone in their right mind, she barely bats an eye and, in fact, revels in telling her one-time peers about her unique line of work.

While there's enough comedy here to make watching the movie a really good time, it's the deeper stuff you'll take away with you. As we learn more about the death of their mother, it becomes clear why Rose and Norah are the way they are. Both are dealing with unresolved issues. If they are rewarded by their cleaning jobs, it's because they are able to analyze death. They remove the mystery from it. When all the questions of "why" are gone, what's left is blood and brains and shit. Cleaning up the messes allows them to bring a small measure of comfort to the loved ones trying to go on in the aftermath. People just like them. It's more than a job - it's work therapy. I certainly wouldn't dream of giving away the ending, but Sunshine Cleaning wisely doesn't oversell it. Things happen to bring the Lorkowski family's grief to the surface. Armed with everything they've learned in the business, Rose and Norah are able to start dealing with it effectively for the first time. At the end, we know just enough to sense where these women will go from here, which is all we really need.

I want to praise the performances, which are outstanding all the way around. Specifically, I want to single out Clifton Collins, Jr. - a great character actor who pays Winston as eccentric, yet also compassionate and dependable. Emily Blunt additionally deserves mention. The actress is able to convey a lot of Norah's tormented inner feelings with just a look or a movement. Blunt doesn't need tons of dialogue to create a three-dimensional character; she does it by embodying the very essence of the woman she's playing. This is fine work from a performer who is steadily building an impressive resume.

Having said that, Sunshine Cleaning really belongs to Amy Adams. I've said before that my favorite working actress is Naomi Watts, but Adams has become a very close second. Like Blunt, she is able to get under the skin of the women she portrays. She's not a physical chameleon, like Daniel Day-Lewis. Instead, she is an emotional chameleon, able to create physical mannerisms, speech patterns, and attitudes that suggest her characters' lives beyond what we see during the course of the story. Consider the amazing diversity of her work: Junebug, Enchanted, Doubt, and even Talladega Nights. Each character fully realized and different from all the others. In this film, Adams plays a young woman who knows her life has gotten off track and she's trying to find a way to fix it. You sense Rose's desperation in the early scenes, while completely understanding her career-facilitated healing in the later ones. In the wrong hands, the role could have become isolating in its quirkiness or, even worse, maudlin. Adams avoids these pitfalls, giving us a Rose who is so authentic that we feel like we could really know her. She deserves serious Oscar consideration.

Despite its weighty themes, Sunshine Cleaning is never a downer. The humor balances out the darker stuff, and director Christine Jeffs (working from Megan Holley's fantastic screenplay) makes sure the movie is not about dying so much as about surviving. When their mother died, Rose and Norah Lorkowski died along with her. The irony is that they continued to live afterward. Cleaning up the messes left in death's wake ultimately teaches them that the Reaper comes soon enough, and it's okay to do all your living while you can.

( 1/2 out of four)

Sunshine Cleaning is rated R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.

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