The dead are all celebrities; they don’t exist in our world. We think of the dead by way of the roles they once played. We let go of all the times when they weren’t who we wanted them to be. It’s easy to be wonderful when you’re dead. The same logic applies to celebrity crushes: so if, let’s say, Amy Adams plays a fairy princess (in Enchanted), it follows that she must swish around set sprinkling moonbeams on the crew. Now, I admit, Amy Adams looks like she goes through life like a fairy princess (moony eyes; mischievous nose), but then again – she’s 34. Her new movie, Sunshine Cleaning, won’t help anyone with a crush on Amy (she’s still adorable), but we should try to remember: she may stab kittens.
A man blows his head off at the start of Sunshine Cleaning. He does it in a way that makes you think kindly of him (he fumbles the bullet into the shotgun), so you know you’re going to like this movie. It’s the story of two sisters who start a crime-scene cleanup business. They are both broke and hurt by the world. Amy Adams plays the sister who puts a brave face on her troubles. Emily Blunt scowls. They’re from an America that every American knows but few movie-goers ever see: the America that’s like everywhere else in the world – trying to get by. Death isn’t shocking in Sunshine Cleaning; it’s like slippers. When the sisters look at a crime scene, they look at it the way you would a loved one getting ready for bed.
Amy Adams is good in do-gooder roles because she never looks invulnerable. She was born to play a cartoon character assailed by the real world. Even if the real Amy Adams was revealed as a kitten stabber, you’d still think “awww” when you saw her. Partly it’s her voice, which is like the word “yummy” put to music (a little childish; a little sweet). Partly it’s her eyes, which are the kind Walt Disney used to draw on baby deer. And partly it’s her smile, which is the word “pleeeeeeease” spelled with teeth. She sleeps with a married man in Sunshine Cleaning and all you think of is how he’s using her. She’s an ideal crush, because she only plays blameless souls, but you need someone like Amy to make you root for a former cheerleader. Her character should be an object of pity (at best), but Amy always looks like God’s little finger is pushing her along.
As her sister, Emily Blunt plays the sort of girl who doesn’t know when the concert’s over. She dresses in clothes that cling to her youth. You’d know her mother was dead, even if I hadn’t told you. People who lose parents often try to remain as kids (in case their parents should come back for them). While Amy is adorably altruistic, Emily is the one who feels it most when the sisters walk in on death. There’s a very touching storyline – which is the heart of Sunshine Cleaning – where Emily tries to rescue a dead woman. She wants to re-envision a woman who died, a drunk and a shut-in, as a good person; the way she looks in an old photograph. Really, Emily wants to rescue her mother. She’s doing what we all do when someone dies. As I say: it’s easy to be wonderful when you’re dead.
Director Christine Jeffs chooses actors who can bring out the comedy in her story. She doesn’t want to make light of death, but she doesn’t want Sean Penn wailing either. With on-screen families, it’s best to avoid show-stopping turns. Family is about conversations that mean the world, spoken casually. There are no rehearsals for family time. So wryness helps, likewise tenderness. When Amy Adams walks in on her father (Alan Arkin) and a bathtub full of unsold shellfish, both actors put every-day, believable squabbles ahead of quirkiness. The scene is funny because neither actor plays for laughs.
Sunshine Cleaning is a story about death and turning thirty. At thirty, it’s time you reconciled with life. Nobody’s dreams work out the way they expected by thirty. Even if you’re rich and powerful, you’re not the rich and powerful thirty-year-old you imagined at sixteen. You have a past. The same past that explains people’s failures. Amy Adams couldn’t say, “Ok, I’ll make cleaning up crime-scenes my life” if she hadn’t tried and failed at a few things. That’s how life works. You watch grown-ups compromise and fluster for twenty or thirty years, and then you’re them. In death, we all get to be like fantasy Amy, blameless and persistent. But life – like this movie – should be treasured for all the mess.