Revisiting the brilliantly uplifting and underrated “Clean and Sober”



“A guy who thinks he can control someone else’s addiction needs to know how overblown his thinking is.” 

If you are someone who is new to the world of cinema and is looking to get acquainted with the films of Michael Keaton, it wouldn’t be very wise to start with Tim Burton’s Batman. That’s the first Keaton film that I saw and it put me off his entire filmography for a long time, until one day I decided to keep an open mind and decided to watch Jackie Brown. I was very impressed and realized that Keaton can be a terrific actor once he gets into the hands of the right director. Now, his role in Jackie Brown got me very curious and I proceeded to browse through his filmography to look for something with a subject matter that would appeal me. His 1988 film Clean and Sober caught my attention. This moving underrated drama about addiction was given a glowing review by Roger Ebert and it’s his review that compelled me to watch the film.

Now, I am not an addict of anything (except for cinema). But I have a strong affinity
toward stories about damaged individuals and this is one of them. I noticed that for
the past 2 days, I’ve been watching films about damaged individuals. Yesterday, I saw
the Bradley Cooper-starrer Burnt and that’s when Clean and Sober immediately came to my mind and I thought of revisiting it. Keaton plays Daryl Poynter, a real-estate agent with a  serious drug problem who one night ends up with a random woman who also happens to be a drug addict. He wakes up next day to find out that she has died from a heart attack resulting from an overdose. He has nothing to do with it but the police suspect him. In addition to that, he has embezzled some money from his firm. Needless to say, he is in a pickle. He is unable to get out of the country on account of his credit card being freezed and a shortage of cash.


While driving his car, he hears about an ad on the radio about a rehabilitation program and lured by the complete anonymity assured by the program, he decides to check in.The program is run by Craig (a then unknown Morgan Freeman), a no-nonsense yet well-disposed counselor. Craig tries hard to make Daryl confront his demons and reform him. Meanwhile, he meets and falls in love with a woman named Charlie (Kathy Baker), another addict just like him. While looking for a sponsor at a 12-step meeting, he comes across Richard (M.Emmett Walsh), a reformed former addict who agrees to take him on. Richard is relentless and wants to ensure that Daryl doesn’t go back to his old ways. He eventually succeeds in getting Daryl to confess in front of his boss about the money. Daryl persuades Charlie to start a life with him despite being aware that she lives with a douchebag boyfriend who has been with her for 10 years.

It is worth noting that Keaton used to be a comedic actor and he was almost on the verge of being typecast  before this film came along. Very rarely do a comedic actor make a successful transition to drama. Notable examples are Bill Murray and Robin Williams. It is Keaton’s performance that drives this film and towers above the grimness of the subject matter. Clean and Sober is the perfect career resurgence needed for Keaton at the time and made lot of directors sit up and take notice of his remarkable talents. Director Glenn Gordon Caron had no prior experience in directing and he was taking a huge chance on this guy. The film was expected to be a major disaster considering that the lead character is a drug addict and a fraud. But Keaton oddly manages to make him likable and relatable to an extent. Actually, I started to root for him towards the end when I saw how much his character has transformed.


I see this as the role that Keaton was born to play. He is riveting in every frame he is in. I watched his performance with the same admiration that I would normally have for Daniel Day-Lewis or Philip Seymour Hoffman. I don’t know a lot of addicts but I used to know a guy who was one and he had the same kind of restless and erratic mannerisms that Keaton displays here. The manner in which Keaton’s character fidgets and his overall hyperactive behavior is amazingly authentic. I observed that unlike other films that deal with addiction, the filmmakers here don’t attempt to disturb us with the depiction of histrionics that normally accompany an addict’s withdrawal symptoms, like we saw in Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting. If you haven’t seen Clean and Sober yet and are of opinion that Birdman is his best performance so far, you might want to reconsider after giving this one a try.


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