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Buddha Laughs
Mouthy Ones: J & K

Bonus Reviews: I’m Okay, You’re Decayed

  • 3/18/09 at 2:31 PM
Amy Adams and Emily Blunt in Sunshine Cleaning.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt in Sunshine Cleaning.Photo: HanWay Films

Sunshine Blog Cleaning: This week’s print column on I Love You, Man is here. Two reviews I didn’t have room for — of Sunshine Cleaning and The Great Buck Howard — follow.

It’s hard to get “black comedy” right — especially in this country, where our earnest pop culture tends to preach self-empowerment. The Coens made a good, heartless stab with Burn After Reading, but the characters were flyspecks, and a CIA chief’s shrug amid the carnage at the end (“No biggie”) just about summed it up. More typical is Christine Jeffs’s Sunshine Cleaning, another “sick” comedy with a mushy center. It gets off to a fine, ghoulish start when a middle-aged man sprays breath freshener into his mouth, enters a sporting-goods store, asks to see a shotgun, and blows his head off — and when the owner grouses to the police detective (Steve Zahn) about the high cost of cleaning what’s left of the man off the shelves. The cop tells his sweet, enterprising mistress, Rose (Amy Adams), about the icky-but-lucrative business of crime-scene cleanup, and soon she and her alienated younger sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), are scrubbing arterial spray off walls and sterilizing apartments in which forgotten old people have spent weeks decomposing. Do they feel bad about those men and women whose lives have come to such ends? Can they desensitize themselves? And how do they get those damn stains out? In any case, the unhygienic horrors throw the sisters’ own domestic trials into relief, and it’s fun to watch these gorgeous and funny actresses groan and hold their noses and try to put the best possible face on the worst possible job. The movie becomes tantalizingly weird when Norah finds a photo of a dead old woman’s estranged daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and follows her. What will she say if they meet? That she’d cleaned up her mother’s postmortem seepage?

Many people have noted the similarities between Sunshine Cleaning and Little Miss Sunshine — another soft-spined Sunshine indie black comedy with a kid (a girl last time, a boy here) and a foul-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin last time, Alan Arkin here). But the makers of Little Miss Sunshine had the sense to keep the laughs coming. To say what goes wrong here, I’ll have to give away the buried psychological trauma — but before I do, that there is a buried psychological trauma is really the problem. It’s not enough for the sisters to act as they do because they can’t pay their rent and the economy’s in a shambles and there’s a proud capitalist tradition of profiting from others’ misfortunes. No, the thinking goes: The movie wouldn’t have heart — the audience wouldn’t care — if there weren’t a literal explanation for why the sisters can’t pull their lives together. In this case [obligatory spoiler alert], Norah is traumatized because she was first on the scene as a little girl when her own mother committed suicide with a revolver. Which raises the question: How the bloody hell could she have taken a job cleaning up after murders and suicide without discussing the emotional difficulties with her sister (who presumably would have them, too)? First we’re giggling as Rose and Norah enter a house and grimace at the smell and at what’s left on the floor or walls or bed — then we’re supposed to shed tears over slow-motion flashbacks of children coming on the fresh corpse of their mother. By the time Norah has squarely faced up to her past and Rose has self-righteously proclaimed to her shallow, snobbish high-school classmates at a baby shower that what she does gives people hope and then “talked” to her dead mom on a CB radio, the movie itself has died and begun to reek.

The three best things in Sean McGinly’s The Great Buck Howard are, to quote Charlie Kaufman, “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.” The great John plays a “mentalist” so directly inspired by the Amazing Kreskin there’s even a misty-eyed tribute to Kreskin in the credits. Once a Tonight Show (with Johnny Carson) staple, Buck Howard now travels the country doing one-night stands at semi-dilapidated community theaters, where he puts up with garish yokels and plays to half-empty houses. The movie portrays him as a friendless freak who in public exudes phony show-biz schmooze and in private throws tantrums and wallows in self-pity. But he still puts on a hell of a show — as his harried assistant (Colin Hanks) reminds us in voice-over. Howard, the movie says, with a tremble in its cinematic syntax, is a showman to the end — and who are you to laugh at him?

As a romantic lead, Colin Hanks doesn’t exactly burn up the screen, and a cameo by his dad (Tom, who co-produced) is a nonevent: Evidently determined not to upstage his son, the elder Hanks de-charismatizes himself. Colin puts out so little that it’s never clear why a jabbering junior publicist played by Emily Blunt is so magnetized by him. But Blunt is a hoot for other reasons. I don’t know for sure that The Great Buck Howard was shot after Sunshine Cleaning, but to my eyes and ears she has patterned the character on her Sunshine co-star, Mary Lynn Rajskub — it’s the same toneless, blurty, on-edge delivery. Cute.

What saves the movie is McGinly and Malkovich’s respect for Buck Howard’s magic — and for the venerable American trickster tradition. Malkovich has the perfect cavernous forehead for a “mentalist,” and his rhythms are — as always — too eccentric to know what’s going on inside it. His unreadability helps dry out the maudlin premise. Somewhere in there is a larger, more tragicomic joke: that this supposed mind reader is locked away in his own head, with no insight into the real thoughts of anyone else. Apart from guessing playing cards and numbers between 1 and 100, he’s without a clue.