- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

You might be forgiven for confusing “Sunshine Cleaning” with “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The two offbeat independent dramedies share more than just a genre and a brightly worded title.

It’s not just that the surprise indie hit of 2006 and this new film have producers in common. Both offer Alan Arkin as a dotty grandfather who best understands the family’s littlest member. Both feature eccentric families that struggle to keep it together in the face of an indifferent and even hostile world. Both have a tragedy at the heart of their comedy. Vans play an important role in both.

“Sunshine Cleaning,” in fact, feels like a poor facsimile of “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s a film full of quirky people whose foibles seem to have been created simply because first-time screenwriter Megan Holley and director Christine Jeffs (“Sylvia”) wanted to make a similarly successful quirky comedy.

The performances are great, though. “Sunshine” actually was filmed two years ago, and Miss Jeffs managed to snag Amy Adams and Emily Blunt before their careers really took off.

The two star as sisters Rose (Miss Adams) and Norah Lorkowski (Miss Blunt). Rose was once the belle of Albuquerque, a cheerleader who dated the quarterback. The quarterback married someone else, though, and now Rose cleans the houses of women, including her former classmates, who became more successful than she. Going nowhere, the single mother is having a hopeless affair with that married quarterback (Mac, played by Steve Zahn) — although it’s never explained why he left the vivacious Rose for the bitter blonde he married (one of many plot weaknesses here).

Norah is even more unsettled. The moody brunette can’t even keep a menial job, and her sex life is even more unsatisfying. (A scene in which she makes listless love with her boyfriend is one of the film’s only real moments.)

When Rose’s son (talented child actor Jason Spevack) gets kicked out of school for acting up, Rose decides she needs money to send him to private school. She hears from Mac, a cop, that crime-scene cleanup crews collect cartons of cash and decides she can easily translate her housekeeping skills to a full-fledged business. High jinks, both personal and professional, ensue.

The supporting cast is just as good as the two leads. Mr. Arkin, of course, won an Oscar for portraying just the type of ornery but lovable grandfather he plays here. (His ill-fated get-rich-quick schemes include schlepping around shrimp to area restaurants.) Mr. Zahn brings feeling to an often-cliched role, while Mary Lynn Rajskub is moving as a troubled woman who almost connects with the similarly confused Norah.

Those real performances aren’t enough to save a film that feels contrived from start to finish, though. A dramedy about two women who run a crime-scene cleanup might sound like a great concept — but the best films develop real people to flesh out good ideas.

★★½

TITLE: “Sunshine Cleaning”

RATING: R (Language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Christine Jeffs. Written by Megan Holley.

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

WEB SITE: https://sunshinecleaning-themovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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