Rose's love life is confined to periodic motel meetings with Mac (Steve Zahn, "Strange Wilderness"), Rose's high school boyfriend, a football-captain-turned-cop who chose not to marry her, in favor of the more conventional Heather (Amy Redford, daughter of Robert). The affair has apparently been going on for years, with the predictable result that Rose, as the "other woman," feels shadowy and insignificant in comparison to Mac's legal ball and chain.
ILLICIT ACROBATIC ROUTINE
While Rose performs her illicit acrobatic routine at the motel, her sister, Norah (Emily Blunt, "Charlie Wilson's War"), babysits Oscar while swilling beers. Between Norah and his Grandpa Joe (the always-welcome Alan Arkin, "Little Miss Sunshine"), Oscar has developed some less-than-conventional attitudes, which raises alarm at his very conventional public school. Rose decides that she would rather think of a way to raise money to put Oscar in private school than put her son on Ritalin, or something worse.
She gets the idea from Mac to move from cleaning up after snobs to cleaning up after suicide and homicide victims. With Norah as her ambivalent partner, Rose buys an old van and starts Sunshine Cleaning, a business dedicated to disposing of the biohazardous aftermath of peoples' last moments.
As they work together, Rose and Norah improve their own relationship and become more intimate with the idea of death. Having lost their own mother when they were children, the sisters have unresolved loss issues and they each explore different possible avenues out of their respective neuroses.
Norah makes contact with a dead client's daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub, TV's "24"), and eventually finds out that interfering with others' grief isn't the most constructive way for her to overcome her own problems. Rose, in the course of buying more high-powered janitorial supplies for her "de-comp" jobs, meets Winston (Clifton Collins Jr., "Capote"), a man who, unlike others she's been involved with, seems to think more with his head than his Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
Like any character-driven story, the strength of "Sunshine Cleaning" lies in the layers of connection between action and theme. The difficulty and emotional complexity of Rose's new job creates an opportunity for her to overcome her sense of inferiority, which is in turn a product of her mother's death. The same goes for Norah, who has been wallowing in the same destructive pattern, seeking the wrong sort of male attention, only to find she feels even emptier than before.
By the end, personal empowerment is obtained all around, and the characters come to a shaky cease-fire with their damaged psychologies. While some movies would have ended with too much perfect happiness and some would have ended with too much gloom, "Sunshine Cleaning" strikes a balance that feels more like real life.
For most of us, life is a series of wrestling matches with whatever our particular problems happen to be at a particular time. As The Dude (Jeff Bridges) learns in "The Big Lebowski," "sometime you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you."
In this round, the Lorkowskis eat a bear, but one gets the feeling there's a whole gang of them hibernating in their collective psyche, and it's just a matter of time before they wake up and start mauling their temporary peace.