Hurry Up and Own

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While President Obama tries to equalize Americans by taxing the rich and giving to the poor, along comes a dark little comedy that celebrates the business of business: making profits.

“Sunshine Cleaning” tells the story of a close-knit but somewhat dysfunctional family trying to get ahead. As the film opens, Norah (Emily Blunt) waits tables at a diner for minimum wage and hates it; her sister Rose (Amy Adams) cleans houses for minimum wage and hates that too.

When Rose’s policeman boyfriend (Steve Zahn) covers a suicide and overhears a crime-scene clean-up crew bidding $3,000 for the job, he immediately thinks of Rose. He offers to send some jobs her way, and “Sunshine Cleaning Company” is born. Rose hires her sister, buys an old van, and slaps on her rubber gloves. Business is business, and this business can be lucrative if you can just hold your nose.

“Sunshine Cleaning” is a dark comedy that’s just a little too dark to be hilarious. Yes, there are the expected humorous scenes of gore and smell as the two pretty and petite women scour crusty blood with tooth brushes and haul bloodstained mattresses to the dumpster (before they learn that this is not the accepted way to dispose of hazardous materials). But the film tries a little too hard and loses the frothiness of, say, “Little Miss Sunshine.” Moreover, the undercurrent of sadness caused by the film’s slowly revealed backstory is just too strong, pulling the actors under time and again. It’s a good film, but not a great one. What I really enjoyed about this film was the tenacity with which the family members pursue business opportunities. When she isn’t cleaning up bodily fluids, Rose is enrolled in a real estate course. And she and Norah aren’t the only entrepreneurs in the family; their father (Alan Arkin) and Rose’s young son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), are hustling business too – first wholesaling fancy popcorn to candy stores and then supplying fresh-frozen shrimp to local restaurants.

When Oscar befriends Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.), the man who owns the cleaning supply store that Rose uses, he immediately begins wondering aloud how Winston might turn his hobby, building model airplanes, into a money-making enterprise. They all seem to have learned two important truths: you don’t get rich working for someone. else, and no one is going to hand you a golden ticket. But entrepreneurship can be one of the surest and most satisfying ways out of poverty.

The students I teach in my night job have figured this out too. By day I teach English classes to traditional students at Mercy College, located on the Hudson River in Dobbs Ferry, New York. But two nights a week I head up the river to Sing Sing, a maximum security correctional facility where my husband and I teach in Mercy’s degree-seeking program for inmates (privately funded, I am proud to add).

There we have met some of the best motivated, hardest working students of our teaching careers. They flock to Mark’s classes on economics and eagerly sign up for his elective on entrepreneurship. One of his students recently told him with a sheepish grin, “Professor, you’re turning me into a Republican!” “Libertarian, I hope!” Mark corrected him good naturedly. So far, not a single graduate of the prison’s college program has returned to prison; the recidivism rate is an astounding zero. College has been their ticket to both self-respect and success. They also recognize that starting their own business is their surest road to independence.

What President Obama seems to lose sight of in his eagerness to level the playing field is that there is a reason some jobs pay more than others. Some people have sacrificed time and money to attend college. Others have risked their savings and sacrificed short-term pleasures to invest in a business. Still others are just born smarter or luckier.

And sometimes the reason a particular job pays more is simply that no one actually wants to do it, but if the price is high enough, someone will take it. Usually those jobs do not require higher education, smarts, or luck. They just require willingness. The free market in wages may not be perfectly fair, but it is preferable to the medieval way of getting undesirable jobs done: conquering a country and forcing the losers to become slaves.

Rose is embarrassed when a high school friend sees her cleaning houses for someone else’s company, but she is proud and invigorated by owning her own company, even though she is still cleaning up other people’s messes. That’s an important insight, and worth the price of a movie ticket.

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