Rating: Rated M (Mature themes, violence, coarse language, sex scene, drug use, and nudity)
Set in Albuquerque, USA, this is a bitter-sweet movie about a family surviving as best it can under enormous financial and psychological pressures. It depicts an odd family, which battles against almost insurmountable problems. Amy Adams (who was nominated earlier this year for an Oscar for her supporting role in “Doubt”) plays the role of Rose Lorkowski who sets up a family cleaning business with her sister Norah (Emily Blunt). It is an unlicensed business that specialises in cleaning up crime scenes, which means a lot of blood and other things need to be cleaned. Alan Arkin plays the role of their father with great eccentricity and quirkiness, and delivers a delightful performance, though it is somewhat reminiscent of the role he played in “Little Miss Sunshine”. Rose is depressed and trying desperately to stay looking competent, and Norah remains traumatized by her mother’s tragic suicide years before. Several of the crime scenes remind both sisters of things that have happened to them in the past. Norah accidentally burns a house down that they are cleaning, and this pushes Rose into financial debt she cannot handle. In the end, Rose and Norah are reconciled by the traumas they have shared together; Norah pulls away to strike out on her own; and Rose is rescued by her father, who sells his house to help her, and sets up a new cleaning business in the Lorkowski name, for crime-scene cleansing, as before.
All of this makes the movie sound grim, especially given that this family cleaning business is not the ordinary run of the mill work. An unexpected suicide, which establishes a cleaning problem, begins it all, and there are frequent stressful reminders of deaths that awaken past traumatic memories that Norah and Rose would prefer to forget. But the movie is a quality film that stays on track with great performances, and it balances humour and drama very nicely. It is well-directed by Christine Jeffs; it is excellently photographed; and it has a plot-line that doesn’t take the easy way out. Rose terminates her attachment to a married detective (Steve Zahn), and begins a relationship with a kindly one-armed shop assistant (Clifton Collins Jr.) who befriends her and her son Oscar (Jason Spevach). You expect that romance to blossom, but it only looks as if it might. Norah flirts knowingly with someone who is after a lesbian relationship with her, but she doesn’t pursue it. And Rose’s dysfunctional son emerges as an individual child in his own right, whom his grandfather all the time thinks is brilliant. Constantly, poignant moments emerge from the unexpected. The mix of comedy, tragedy, eccentricity, and ghoulish realism could so often go wrong, but generally doesn’t.
Because of its dark content, this is not a film that will attract a lot of people, but it is quality viewing nevertheless, and well worth a visit to the cinema to see it. It is not designed to be a black piece; rather, it is a film about bleak events that happen to people. The movie’s comic moments never lose touch with the film’s characters, and they flow genuinely from astute observations of people, their sufferings, and their capacity to survive regardless. Beneath a morbid exterior, the tenderness shows, and the film belies the prejudice (projected by Rose’s school friends in the movie) that very attractive women just don’t clean houses. The film is a tribute to its New Zealand Director. She manages to stay in tune with her characters, and avoids the temptation to get distracted, or focus excessively on the bleakness of their lives.
For some, this movie will seem chaotic, and the mix of its elements might look contrived. But, for others, the film entertains interestingly and differently in an off-beat, and surprisingly endearing way.
Madman Pictures Out June 11, 2009
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.