Saw The Muppets this afternoon and as usual Amy Adams was too cute for words and as usual that didn’t stop me from liking her or the movie. But two of Amy Adams’ co-stars from Sunshine Cleaning have cameos in The Muppets, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin. Reminded me I liked that movie. So, from August 2009:
Two beautifully realized and revealing moments in Sunshine Cleaning that bring important characters fully to life and neither one involved the stars of the film.
One doesn't even involve an actor.
Sunshine Cleaning stars Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as Rose and Norah Lorkowski, two sisters who start a business cleaning up the bloody messes left at crime scenes and in the aftermaths of accidents, and one of those moments is a flashback to when the sisters were little girls and they discovered their mother's body after she'd committed suicide. The girls come into the house from playing outside in the sprinkler. Rose, the eldest, is in the lead and she realizes something is terribly wrong before she sees what's the matter. She continues on ahead (with the camera behind them) but as she goes her right arm swings around to reach back towards her sister and her hand opens up to hold Norah back. This reflexive protective gesture of the big sister's towards the little one instantly becomes the defining gesture of their lives and we understand from it why in the movie's present, with Rose in her thirties and Norah getting there, neither young woman has much of a life of her own.
Rose has devoted herself to taking care of Norah at her own expense, but she's done it by pushing Norah back---by "protecting" her from the worst life throws at people, she's protected Norah from life itself. Norah can't navigate in the world because Rose has never let her learn how to.
Meanwhile, Rose, who at one point complains that she's not good at anything, is shown to have been really good at the kind of self-sacrifice that is really self-punishment. She's been sabotaging her own life for years because she feels she failed at the most important job she was given. That gesture of protection came both too late and with not enough strength. She believes that she should have protected Norah by having saved their mother or by having made everything all right afterwards.
By the way, the connection between the work they're doing and Rose's guilt and Norah's inability to face up to life is clear to the point of being trite, but what's good about the way Sunshine Cleaning deals with it is that it doesn't deal with it. It leaves it entirely unremarked upon. Rose delivers a little speech to a gathering of old high school friends about what she does and what she likes about the work that brings her close to stating the obvious---"We come into people's lives when they have experienced something profound and sad and...we help."---but the sweetness of Adams' delivery coupled with the way she plays it makes this the moment when Rose realizes that she really does like the work and she's proud of herself as a businesswoman; the psychological ramifications don't even seem to cross her mind, and the obvious remains unstated.
The other moment, the one that doesn't involve an actor but still brings a character to life, occurs in the house the sisters have come to to clean up after another suicide. The bodies are always gone before they arrive, and usually there are no survivors there to deal with, only cops or landlords. This time they meet the elderly widow of the old man who killed himself. She takes Rose into the house to show her where her husband did it and all along the walls and on the doors and on the appliances we see Post-it Notes, many stuck one on top of another, and although we haven't been told anything about the dead man, not even that he shot himself, we know him and we know why.
The camera closes in on just one of the notes, mainly to show us that the man wrote the notes himself to himself. At first I thought this was his last note, but thinking it over I've decided it might very well have been his first. It's a note reminding him to tell his wife he loves her.
The note isn't about saying good-bye. It's not about death. It's about living and what's important. It's a note to Rose and to the audience.
Sunshine Cleaning is a note to the audience reminding us that people whose presence in our lives are determined and defined by their functionality---maids, store clerks, waitresses, lab technicians, among others---people who we take for granted and often just ignore are real human beings with feelings and thoughts and dreams and sorrows and, by the way, but not trivially, special talents and skills that make them good at what they do, that make them useful not just functional. It's the kind of low-key, understated character comedy-drama that has not much more reason than to make us like and understand its characters as a way of making us like and understand other real people and ourselves, and as that kind of a movie Sunshine Cleaning does a pretty good job. Screenwriter Megan Holly and director Christine Jeffs have steered away from the darker aspects of their own story and are perhaps a little too determined to make sure that we like Rose and Norah and their father Joe, played crustily but affably by Alan Arkin, and the result may be a little too much sweetness and lightness for some. I didn't mind it, except in the few moments when characters let loose angers that they haven't been hiding as much as they've had them excised, and then things start to feel forced and actors who've been underplaying their roles beautifully suddenly seem to be overacting desperately, which is an extra flaw in a movie that has as its main other reason for demanding our attention the pleasure of watching its stars act like actors and not like movie stars.
Sunshine Cleaning is the first movie since Junebug I've seen Amy Adams play a real human being in. I haven't seen Julie & Julia yet. In Doubt and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day she played "characters," realistic fictions that closely resemble real human beings but which couldn't exist outside of the stories they were created to help tell. In Enchanted she played a cartoon, literally, a Disney princess come to life, and she was brilliant, but, you know, a cartoon, and in Night at the Museum 2: Battle for the Smithsonian she attempted to repeat the trick by bringing what was essentially a cartoon version of Amelia Earhart to life, but she had a weak script and a lesser director to work with, plus I didn't think anybody could have found for her a less worthy love interest than Patrick Dempsey until I saw Ben Stiller practically yawning through all their scenes together. And in Charlie Wilson's War she's completely wasted in a part that doesn't require her to do anything but stand there and listen attentively while Tom Hanks has a good time hamming it up.
Adams makes Rose not just someone you could meet in real life but someone you feel you have met.
Didn't surprise me to see Adams pull this off. It shouldn't be surprising when actors we've thought were really good in one thing show by being really good in something very different that the reason they were good in the first thing is that they are good actors. (That one was as hard to type as it probably was to read.) Adams is helped, though, by her looks. She is very pretty, but in an ordinary way. If it wasn't for her red hair, it would be possible to overlook her in a crowd. Not easy, but possible, and you might not look twice, if you were in a hurry.
Emily Blunt, however, is not overlookable or look pastable. Her features are more striking and she's four inches taller and built along more heroic lines. So what's most surprising about her appearance in Sunshine Cleaning is that she appears at all. It was inspired to cast her as someone who is convinced she's not worth a second glance, possibly not even a first, and who goes out of her way to make sure that's the way it goes. Rose's over-protectiveness has undermined Norah's self-confidence to the point that she's accepted that she's not fit for grown-up life. She's handicapped by her own and Rose's low expectations, and she's learned to co-operate with Rose in the job of keeping Norah safe by keeping her pushed back. She is always in retreat, and one sign of this is her choice of clothes and hair style and use of make up, all of which are applied to present a "character" to the world that people will see and react to in place of the real Norah. Instead of a beautiful and intelligent young woman, she sends out in her stead a sullen and incompetent overgrown adolescent.
And there's something else at work within her. Norah has some little, secret ways of keeping her mother alive in herself, but all she really knows about her is that she was beautiful and that somehow her beauty contributed to the sadness that destroyed her, possibly by giving her expectations of a grander, more glamorous, more exciting life. Norah's downplaying of her beauty, her denying it, is a way of preventing herself from developing great expectations. Norah would rather expect nothing, and is generally relieved when that's what she gets.
Blunt doesn't convey Norah's low self-esteem, hopelessness, and contrived immaturity just by dressing down and letting her unkempt hair fall across her face. She carries herself like the most awkward of teenagers, all arms and legs going ever which way. She gallumphs when she walks, slouches deeply into cushions when she sits, and is as droopy and loose-limbed as a scarecrow when she stands still. There's really no hiding the fact that Blunt is beautiful but she makes Norah someone there's no way you could convince is beautiful, not as beautiful as her sister, at any rate, so what's the point of even trying?
There's one other movie star in Sunshine Cleaning playing a real person in a departure from what has become his routine role as schlumpy stoner sidekick, but I'm not going to tell you who, in case you want to be surprised like the blonde who didn't recognize him, even though he's one of her favorites, and she was flabbergasted when she read his name in the end credits.
Sunshine Cleaning is available to watch instantly at Amazon.