Friday, March 20, 2009

Cleaning, magic and crossing borders

This week's biggie -- a thriller starring Julia Robers and Clive Owens -- is accompanied into the marketplace by two smaller films, both of which pass as easily as sighs and both of which have something to recommend them. And both, by the way, feature the work of Emily Blunt and, to a far lesser degree, Steve Zahn.

First up, "Sunshine Cleaning." This quasi-serious comedy from director Christine Jeffs has two important assets, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. actresses who give the movie most of its appeal. They plays sisters who start a business devoted to cleaning up crime scenes.

Of the sisters, Adams' Rose is the more driven; she wants to succeed in business and she's really trying. It may be her way of fulfilling the promise she showed as a high school cheerleader in Albuquerque, back in the days when she was also the school heartthrob. Blunt's character takes a more casual approach to employment. Adams and Blunt are joined by Alan Arkin who plays (what else?) their lovable grump of a dad.

An unspoken tragedy weighs down the comedy: The sisters, we learn, still are trying to recover from their mother's suicide, and that's just one of several complications. Rose is having an affair with a married man (Steve Zahn), the cop who initially suggests that she might make a big financial score by learning how to clean crime scenes. Rose also takes care of her son (Jason Spevack), a kid with problems who's often dumped at his grandfather's house.

Slender and not always able to find its stride, "Sunshine Cleaning" is nonetheless worth a look. At minimum, it deserves entry on the list of movies you plan to catch up with on DVD. The always appealing Adams, recently nominated for a best-supporting actress Oscar for her work in "Doubt," continues to demonstrate her versatility, and Blunt proves equally convincing as the sister of less ambition. Keep your expectations in check, and you may enjoy a movie that happily goes against the mega-movie grain.

The week's second small movie, "The Great Buck Howard," is less successful. This low-key blend of comedy and drama stars Colin Hanks, son of Tom Hanks, who served as one of the movie's producers.

Written and directed by Sean McGinly, "The Great Buck Howard" pays homage to a one-time show-business phenom whose career has faded. Buck Howard, played with precision and outlandish style by John Malkovich, is a "mentalist" who performs his mind-reading act in small towns and second-tier cities. Hanks' Troy Gable, a law school dropout in need of a job, signs on as Buck's assistant, opening himself to a range of unusual experience. He also meets a publicist and potential love interest (Emily Blunt),

Some of the movie's conceits -- Buck's claim to fame is that he appeared 61 times on the Tonight Show when it starred Johnny Carson -- are amusing and sharp, but the movie doesn't hit nearly enough high notes. This could be a case in which the ideas in the script don't always crystalize on screen. When Buck plans a great, career reviving trick in Cincinnati, he's upstaged in a most demeaning way. He becomes a victim of the shifting tides of show-business interest. It's a nice idea, but it fails to coalesce into a moment of inspired comedy.

Still, I could muster no ill will toward "The Great Buck Howard,'' which did create some intrigue, at least for me. I kept asking myself which character in TV's "Mad Men," Colin Hanks plays. The answer eluded me until about half way through the movie: Ah, I thought, he's Father Gil. Here, the young Hanks proves affable in the right way, a mild presence in a mild comedy that could have benefited from a bit more bite. Hanks, the Elder, appears in cameo. He plays Troy's dad. (Steve Zahn -- also on view in Sunshine Cleaning" -- has a small role in this one, too.)

Another small movie opening this week is "Crossing Over," an immigration drama starring Harrison Ford. Director Wayne Kramer ("The Cooler") tries to create a tapestry of interrelated stories in a movie that's bound to evoke comparisons to "Crash" and that movie's wannabe followers. But unlike "Crash," which was full of overplayed contrivance, this one is full of underplayed contrivance.

Looking as stolid as ever, Ford portrays an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer with a conscience. He's joined by Ashley Judd and Ray Liotta as attorneys who are married to each other. A variety of other actors populate stories that involve immigrant Muslims, Mexican "illegals" caught in raids and an Iranian ICE officer harboring a secret. An aspiring Australian actress (Alice Eve) also tries to break the immigration barrier, trading sex for a green card.

Ford seems too big for this kind of non-star effort, but the real problem with "Crossing Over" involves stories that aren't all that interesting and a malnourished directorial style. In order to wrap up a plethora of loose ends, the movie begins to feel interminable, another drama that seems as if it concludes a half dozen times.

"Crossing Over" should have been an important movie: It reeks with hot-topic promise, but seldom gets past lukewarm.

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