There’s a great scene in “Sunshine Cleaning” in which Norah Lorkowski (Emily Blunt) takes her new friend Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) “trestling.” Not being crazy, Lynn demurs when it comes to climbing the supports under the railroad tracks, but Norah goes all the way up where she can reach between the ties, tempting fate as the train comes. The sparks and “metallic breath” of the train, the swaying of the structure, and the terrible noise transport her, first to ecstasy but then to grief. Norah was deeply wounded by her mother’s death—a “do-it-yourself job”—when Norah was a small girl still running through the lawn sprinkler. She carries this wound even as a young adult who’s prone to fucking up a lot.
This scene is typical of how “Sunshine Cleaning” manages to balance on the edge between uplift and pathos. (Hmmm. Uplift. Pathos. No telling whether it was a U.P. railroad line.) Norah and Rose Lorkowski are both wounded. As the older, responsible sister, Rose (Amy Adams) tends toward wounds of the self-inflicted variety, like her mother. She’s deceiving herself, but no one else, as she carries on an affair with an old friend from high school, Mac (Steve Zahn), a police detective who won’t be leaving his wife. Meanwhile, acting out his angst, Rose’s seven-year-old son Oscar (Jason Spevack) has licked the leg of his public school teacher. Private school is the answer for such a sensitive, advanced little bastard (the nickname he acquires, courtesy of his loving Aunt Norah.) During one of their sessions together in a motel, Mac suggests that Rose, who cleans houses, can earn more far money by going into business for herself in crime scene cleanup. The transformation of the entire Lorkowski family has begun.
Working out of the back of Rose’s decrepit Toyota, the sisters are confronted with their first gruesome job, and their success in using toothbrushes to scrape dried blood from a shower wall leads to more of such choice opportunities. It’s only natural that, in the case of one post-mortem, they begin to face their own mother’s suicide.
But first, Rose accelerates her self-inflicted misery. Before getting out of the housecleaning business, she finds herself washing the blinds and sweeping up for a former high school classmate, now Paula Datzman-Mead (Judith Jones). Heavy with child (and prosperity), Paula invites Rose to the baby shower. All the old gang will be there! Before this irresistible convocation, Rose has a run-in with Mac’s enraged wife, Heather (Amy Redford), who asserts that Rose might have been “hot shit” during high school but now is nothing. Rolling up to Paula’s villa in her old clunker, she finds the driveway clogged with a panoply of gaudy luxury cars and SUVs, and we dread it as Rose’s plunges her nothingness into the soiree. Announcing to the country club set that you’re self-employed in biohazard removal and that you derive tremendous satisfaction from being so helpful to people is hardly the way to acceptance. On the other hand, what could be more gruesome than the women’s ritual of eating five different kinds of chocolate directly from baby diapers? Rose excuses herself. She really has to be going.
She had attended the party at the expense of accompanying Norah to an important job, the one-day turnaround of a house for State Farm. Now Rose pulls up at the job site and finds the bungalow fully engulfed in flames, thanks to Norah’s klutziness. (Never depend on a scented candle to mask the smell of death.) Of course, Sunshine Cleaning doesn’t carry insurance, so Rose is bankrupt. On top of that, as she tells Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.)—the one-armed modelmaker and purveyor of industrial cleaning agents, who reluctantly has babysat Oscar—she’s good at getting men to want her but not to date or marry her. And Norah, who means well, finds herself rebuffed by Lynn, about whom she knows what she thinks is an important secret. Even their father, Joe (the wonderful Alan Arkin) finds the fruits of his labors coming to naught. There’s nothing to do but to unite—except for Norah, who decides on a tried-and-true method of dealing with problems, which is to hit the road. Rose’s touching soliloquy, delivered by CB radio, suggests a coming to terms with the past. The ending, in which Joe makes the distinction between a business lie and a life lie, smooshes together a lot of elements into a conveniently cheery package, but you leave the theater with a tear in your eye and a smile on your lips, repeating the final exchange between Joe and Rose. He: “Uggh, the smell.” She: “You’ll get used to it.”