Too many movies—like too many politicians—promise more than they deliver. This is particularly true in the early months of the year, after the studios have unveiled their Oscar hopefuls and are looking for stopgaps to keep warm bodies in the theater until the summer blockbuster season starts. Those movies of the late winter and early spring may have promising trailers and good, even outstanding, casts and directors. But too many of them are variations of the same old same old, and even when they strive for originality the results are disappointing.
Such were my feelings about Tony Gilroy's Duplicity and Christine Jeffs' Sunshine Cleaning. One is a big-budget international caper flick, the other a small-budget, deliberately quirky indie film, and both feature casts that promise great things. Neither is really bad, but both—to quote the late, great Tallulah Bankhead—offer less than meets the eye.
Of the two, Duplicity is the greater disappointment, if only because it is Gilroy's first film since his international, Oscar-winning hit, Michael Clayton. In that film, Gilroy showed himself able to craft a suspenseful film through a tricky, fragmented storytelling technique. In Duplicity, however, the trickiness and fragmentation are the whole point. Like a jigsaw puzzle, eventually we get the picture, but the result isn't exactly a Rembrandt.
Through various flashbacks and split-screen effects, the story emerges: Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and Ray Koval (Clive Owen) are former government agents now working in corporate security. Despite severe issues of trust between them (something about Claire slipping a mickey to Ray that one night in Dubai), they are intensely drawn to each other, and to each other's beds. Shacking up in a luxurious Roman hotel suite they can't afford, they hit on a get-rich-quick scheme: go to work for rival companies, play them against each other to steal trade secrets, and get a big payday from a third firm.
Ray is enthusiastic about the opportunities in the frozen-pizza business, but Claire sets her sights higher, toward the cutthroat war between two pharmaceutical CEOs: Howard Tully of Burkett & Randle (Tom Wilkinson) and Richard Garsik of Equikrom (Paul Giamatti). Tully has a top-secret new formula, Garsik wants it, so Ray and Claire go to work on opposite sides, itching to get their own hands on the formula and sell it for millions to a Swiss pharmaceutical concern. However, can Ray and Claire trust each other not to run off alone with the formula? After all, duplicity is in their DNA.
There is some moderately amusing comedy along the way, and a decent amount of suspense at the end. However, the film's final twist leaves the audience flat. Ever since Ernst Lubitsch and Trouble in Paradise, the template for movies about two crooks in love has been for the crooks to discover that their love means more to them than the loot. They may get the loot in the end, or they may not, but the point is that their love triumphs. It's also part of the drill that all the crooked characters get the comeuppance they deserve—including, to varying degrees depending on the slant of the story, the crooked lovers. I realize Gilroy is trying to make a cynical, worldly-wise, post-modern variant on that story, but his resolution, though clever, is not pleasurable. Without giving away anything, Gilroy's denouement transforms the story into a simple (though extremely convoluted) tale of three deceitful, unscrupulous, unpleasant factions of people, each trying to one-up the others. One faction wins absolutely, and the other two lose absolutely. The end. Whoopee.
It doesn't help that all the characters are ciphers except for Claire, Ray and Garsik (even Tully is nebulous until the film's final scenes). Claire and Ray end up being the McGuffins in their own story, despite the undeniable charisma and romantic chemistry Roberts and Owen bring to the roles. Giamatti has a number of juicy scenes, but it's a big disappointment that he and Wilkinson, those two consummate character actors, have no scenes together except the one silent, slow-motion scene at the beginning in which they physically assault each other on an airport tarmac. (It's amusing, however, to transpose that scene in your mind to the last two characters Giamatti and Wilkinson played—John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in the HBO John Adams miniseries. Adams and Franklin liked each other about as well as Garsik and Tully, and the thought of them going at it—with horse-drawn carriages replacing Lear jets in the background—provides a piquant perspective on history.)
Sunshine Cleaning, meanwhile, offers depressing proof that indie producers can be just as unimaginative and money-grubbing as their big-studio counterparts. Everything about the picture smells of an attempt to grab a fork of the lightning that struck Little Miss Sunshine. Like the earlier film, Sunshine Cleaning tries to find quirky, poignant comedy in morbid situations. It is set in Albuquerque, the same town as Little Miss Sunshine; it features two of the same actors, Alan Arkin and Mary Lynn Rajskub; and the similarity between the titles is obvious. Yet Sunshine Cleaning, despite some excellent performances, never quite catches fire (though a fire plays a crucial role in the plot). The best you can say about it is that it's pleasantly forgettable.
Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) and her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) are living sad-sack lives in Albuquerque. Rose has a promising future behind her: once the head of the cheerleading squad at her high school, she was forced to forgo college after her boyfriend Mac (Steve Zahn) got her pregnant, then married someone else. While her hyperactive son Oscar (Jason Spevack) terrorizes his elementary school, Rose is reduced to cleaning the houses of all the former classmates who once envied her and carrying on a backroom affair with Mac. Norah, who never even had a promising future, is a chronic ditz who has lost a string of waitressing jobs. Their father, Joe (Arkin), is no help, with his string of fly-by-night entrepreneurial schemes that never come to anything.
When Oscar gets expelled from school, Rose is faced with the prospect of private-school fees she can't afford. However, Mac, who is now a police detective, tells Rose during one of their motel-room trysts that there's a lot of money to be made in cleaning up suicide and homicide scenes. That's all Rose needs to enlist Norah in setting up Sunshine Cleaning, the specialty of which is—you guessed it.
The problem with Megan Holley's script is that, having introduced the macabre theme, it does virtually nothing with it. If you've seen the film's trailer and the scene of Rose and Norah carrying a blood-stained mattress, you've seen the extent to which Holley develops the gross-out aspect of the story. The black humor—can you imagine what Hitchcock could have done with this premise?—is scarcely developed at all. The opportunities for poignancy with the bereaved loved ones are done better—there is one touching scene in which Rose tries to help an elderly woman whose husband has just shot himself, and a subplot in which Norah tries to make friends with a deceased woman's estranged daughter (Rajskub). One subplot—regarding Rose and Norah's memories of their mother, who died when they were small—does pay off toward the end. For the most part, however, Rose and Norah might as well be cleaning truck stops. It doesn't help that the story switches far too often to Joe's schemes, which involve things such as buying and selling shrimp off a tractor-trailer.
The best moments in Sunshine Cleaning are the ones in which the actors are simply reacting to each other. My favorite scenes are those in the store where Rose and Norah buy their cleaning supplies; Rose and Oscar develop a nice, easy rapport with Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), the one-armed manager of the store, who looks like the worst sort of scumbag but turns out to be a decent, stand-up guy.
The movie introduces the possibility of a relationship between Rose and Winston, but leaves that unresolved at movie's end. Indeed, just about every plot and subplot in the movie is unresolved at movie's end, a' la Mike Leigh. Sunshine Cleaning, however, is no Life is Sweet, despite the very fine performances. The quirkiness of the concept seems strained at the end, and you wish you just could have met and spent time with these characters under different circumstances.
(Having reviewed two movies that don't deliver what they promise, I will mention briefly two movies—both set at fictional Washington,D.C., daily newspapers—that do: Kevin Macdonald's State of Play, which is very good, and Rod Lurie's Nothing but the Truth, which is superb. I will have a larger review of both films next month, but since State of Play's box-office figures are in free fall—apparently, print journalism is about as interesting to young moviegoers as buggy whips—go now if you want to see it in a theater. No one ever had the chance to see Nothing but the Truth in a theater, but its DVD release on April 28 puts the lie to the idea that straight-to-video movies are always inferior.)