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Making It Better

By Laura Leon

Sunshine Cleaning

Directed by Christine Jeffs

Usually, housekeeping—OK, let’s be frank, domestic drudgery—is played in movies as a means to a laugh, or possibly, a cover to a crime. I think that the powers that be are so far removed from the act of scrubbing and scouring that they can’t think of it in any other terms. And yet, speaking as somebody who loves cleaning house even as she resents the expectation that she be the one doing it, there’s something cathartic about setting things right, putting belongings in order and achieving a spick-and-span glow to one’s environs. (Even if, 10 minutes later, it’s all for naught.)

In Sunshine Cleaning, plucky Rose (Amy Adams) cleans for a living, and she’s good at it. Even so, it’s disconcerting to her when she realizes that the person whose toilet she’s just scrubbed is a high-school classmate she probably wouldn’t have bothered with back in the day. That would have been when she, Rose, was the cheerleading captain and girlfriend of quarterback Mac (Steve Zahn). Fast forward to reality: Rose is a single mom to Mac’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack); Mac, now a cop, has gone on to marry someone named Heather, but he still shacks up with Rose at a seedy motel. Rose clings to the notion that someday she’ll have her real-estate license, and bristles when Mac tips her off about the incredible money to be made cleaning up after crime scenes.

“Is that all you think I can do? Clean up other people’s shit?” complains Rose.

Nevertheless, and considering she needs big money fast in order to send precocious Oscar to a special school, she enlists her slacker sister Norah (Emily Blunt) to assist her, and the two go at it, like lambs to the slaughter—that is, the site of the slaughter. Initially repulsed, Rose quickly gets over her qualms, in large part because she’s the sort who wants to clean up any mess in front of her (unless that mess is her own life).

The previews play the movie for laughs (like when Norah falls onto a bloody mattress); while there is much humor pulsating through this movie, it’s also deeply moving and soulful. It’s clear that some harrowing loss binds the sisters together, even as that loss nearly defines who they are. Rose, good at more than just the cleaning stuff, is tactful and understanding when dealing with survivors, such as an elderly widow whose husband killed himself before her bridge party. Norah, on the other hand, reacts to the artifacts left behind that stand testament to a life lived. One discovery leads her to befriend Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub); the resulting relationship, though founded on a lie, causes Norah to confront her meaningless days.

Sunshine Cleaning is not without faults. Alan Arkin is on hand as grandpa Joe, and this movie having been made by the very same folks who brought us Little Miss Sunshine, it’s perhaps understandable that not only would they utilize the same talent, but that they might try to channel the crazy granddad shtick. He’s gruff but understanding with Oscar and loving to his daughters. His failures as a salesman are mined more for comedy than to lend any sort of understanding of how Rose and Norah grew up. Not enough screen space is given the wonderful Clifton Collins Jr., who plays Walter, a one-armed dealer in cleaning supplies and equipment. The movie makes out that Rose and Walter are losers, at least by today’s warped standards, but they clearly are smart and capable, and blessed with the grace to meet head-on any challenge that comes their way and try to make it better.

The next big thing? Stewart in Adventureland.

Winning the Giant-Ass Panda


Directed by Greg Mottola

James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a sensitive and romantic college grad who has plans to spend the summer in Europe with a school chum, but his summer abroad gets the kibosh when his father is demoted. With a degree in literature and Renaissance studies, James is forced to accept employment at a Pittsburgh amusement park called Adventureland. As if being a park employee isn’t embarrassing enough, James is placed behind a games counter, which is lower than being a rides attendant. A parting gift of a bag of weed from his chum quickly makes James popular with the other employees, and compensates for his relative lack of machismo. “I read poetry because I like to,” he confesses to a friend who knows of James’ shameful “scarlet V” (for virgin) status.

Written from his own experience by Greg Mottola, the director of Superbad, Adventureland is a coming-of-age story with likable, believable characters and enjoyable dialogue. Told from the guys’ perspective, it’s less raunchy than Superbad and centers on James’ relationship with Em (Kristen Stewart), a troubled co-worker who parties instead of planning for college. Though not as educated as James, she appreciates his literate gallantry almost as much as his ganja. James and Em bond when she comes to his rescue after an irate customer pulls a knife to get a stuffed- animal prize. Together, they break one of the park’s few employee rules: “Never give away the giant-ass pandas.” The park’s petty corruptions provide amusing background drama for the employees’ socio-romantic foibles.

Along with the soundtrack of ’80s new-wave hits, Mottola’s uncontrived appreciation for nostalgia in cludes the sight of 18-year-olds getting served in bars, and talking to each other instead of their cellular gizmos. James innocently turns to the suave Mike (Ryan Reynolds), a philandering, married mechanic, for manly advice about a date with the park’s femme fatale. Meanwhile, his games-counter cohort, Joel (Martin Starr), struggles with being a gawky Jewish existentialist pagan with a passion for Gogol. Among the park’s geek variants, James at least has a naive confidence (Eisenberg is just as good here as he was in The Squid and the Whale). And that’s what makes Adventureland appealing: the personalities of the teens and the actors who play them. Stewart just might be the next big thing in beautiful young actresses who can actually act, but everyone in Mottola’s midway-to-adulthood is worth the ticket.

—Ann Morrow

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