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.