Michael Keaton was probably put on this Earth to deliver dialogue like “Put it in park, you little pecker”—a line simultaneously irritating and freakishly clever, epitomizing the actor’s brand of bogus machismo. Keaton’s range—which veers so far into comedy that it subverts any expectation of real dramatic weight, only to swing back around to potentially devastating effect—is the key reason Clean and Sober works as well as it does. By today’s standards, this is an uncommonly intelligent, meticulously written adult drama about addiction as a pathology, so graceful and procedural that it’s too square to ever leap off the rental shelf. Keaton appears as an abandoned prototype for a leading man, somewhere between Jack Nicholson’s ’70s self-hatred and Tom Cruise’s you-gotta-be-kidding-me ’90s moxie. For fans, Clean and Sober is just as essential as the similarly rooted in the real world Mr. Mom, Tim Burton’s Batman films, or Johnny Dangerously.
Keaton’s Daryl isn’t a good guy stricken with he usual Jekyll-and-Hyde treatment one finds in movies about alcoholism dramas, but an overall bad guy trying to pass himself off as good, a process of continual deception of both self and others. After a pretty blonde has a coke-fuelled heart attack in Daryl’s bed, the cops tell him not to leave town; he squeaks to a colleague, “They’re gonna say I did a John Belushi on her!” But since he’s also embezzled $92,000 from his real-estate firm and lost every penny in the stock market, Daryl checks himself into a rehab facility. He sobers up, eventually, but that’s no spoiler: The second half of the film concerns his relationship to Charlie (Kathy Baker), a fellow patient who helps Daryl to steady himself in making moves (albeit preliminary) toward a better life.
But first, that blonde: After she dies in the hospital, her father turns up at Daryl’s firm demanding answers, airing Daryl’s dirty laundry to all his colleagues. The double whammy of explaining his misappropriated funds and also clearing his name looms tall over him well into his sobriety, popping up on Daryl’s radar just when things appear to be easing up. It’s a lurid tale, maybe, but a perfect example of those unresolved burdens that can drive a person to addiction in the first place—nothing to say but I will deal with this later, the distance between now and “later” measurable only in lost time and cigarette butts. Meanwhile, Daryl tries to pull Charlie away from her abusive boyfriend and indeed finds himself repeating the same recovery boilerplate they both used to roll their eyes at. (Daryl’s first scene at an actual meeting sees him looking for a sponsor, but asking only women.)
Unrelentingly murky interiors and long shadows make it impossible to determine what most individual scenes, lines, or close-ups are intended to be: sad? Funny? Touching? Ominous? Whether by design or coincidence, this ends up being a great asset for Clean and Sober, and director Glenn Gordon Caron tends to embrace ambivalence (via Keaton) over pedantry, regularly throwing Daryl’s shit-talking, wild-eyed outside persona against Keaton’s natural introspection. This is most obvious when he’s on the phone with his mother, strung out on coke in the dead of night, having just ransacked his office for a hidden stash of money, begging her to take out a second mortgage on her house. Caron deliberately withholds her end of the conversation, allowing Daryl to attempt an entire playbook of different tones and approaches—establishing hard and fast that Daryl is “acting” in the outside world as much as Keaton is in the movie.
Addiction films are usually propaganda without a specific base, arguably constructed to illustrate the perils of over-indulgence and adding up to a strictly cautionary tale. (Indeed, my bias going into Clean and Sober was an automatic assumption that the title was meant sarcastically, whereas the film explores most competently the mechanics of whether you can be one of those words without the other.) Daryl’s route to recovery is so circuitous, full of bleak irony and reversible victory, that the film (to its credit) tells its story while also making the case for a mentality all too common to addicts: Try as you might, what’s the use of being good if the world isn’t going to be good back?