By Marc S. Sanders

There’s nothing pretty about alcoholism and drug addiction.  Surprisingly enough, I can only think of a handful of films that really explore the struggle ahead of the main character admitting to a problem, then going through the rehabilitation process, and then trying to live without the chemical dependency, thereafter.  Each of these stages have been depicted plenty of times, in all kinds of mediums.  Yet, Clean And Sober, directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, with Michael Keaton in the lead role, covers all three quite effectively.

Keaton portrays Daryl Poynter, a successful real estate broker.  When he’s awakened by a phone call one morning, his incessant sniffing is interrupted by his insistence to the caller that he’ll check on a missing $92,000 from an escrow account on Monday morning.  He quickly hangs up the phone and turns towards the nude woman in his bed.  Then it dawns on him that something is not right with her.  Police determine she has overdosed, and Daryl better stay in town. 

Instead, Daryl opts to check in anonymously to a nearby rehabilitation center.  He’ll get free room and board, and no one will know to look for him while he’s hiding out from those looking for the escrow money or how he may be responsible for the drugged woman.  He’s just hiding out, though.  Daryl has no intention of following the program the center offers.  So, Daryl is a rule breaker where he sneaks in phone calls to his stockbroker, and his friend that he insists send him an overnight package of cocaine he kept stashed in his office desk.  Morgan Freeman is Craig, the leader of the recovery program and a recovering addict.  He easily sees through Daryl’s shenanigans and kicks him out.  Following a late night, out-of-control episode at his office, while looking for his drugs, Daryl returns to the center and gradually acknowledges his problem, while still living in fear of the consequences when he learns the woman he was with has died and her father has gone out looking for him.  His bosses are also questioning the whereabouts of that money.

Keaton turns in a chain smoking, red eyed performance.  His appearance and body language convincingly send the message of his harmful addictions more than his line deliveries.  Honestly, I found him to be a little over the top with his rantings and “fuck you” temper tantrums.  When I was observing his behaviors, only then was I buying his portrayal.  This role should serve as a significant accomplishment in the history of Keaton’s career.  Before this film, from 1988, the actor was more well known for comedies (Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, Johnny Dangerously) and his tours on the stand-up circuit.  I think he became a better dramatic actor later on. 

Freeman is once again so good as a subdued, in charge and street-smart mentor.  Another good mentor comes from the never showy character actor, M Emmet Walsh (I find him in so many of these now classic films; he really had a presence in Hollywood.)  Walsh is Richard, the unglamourous sponsor that Daryl was never expecting.  Daryl was holding out for an attractive woman to be his sponsor.  A great scene occurs between the two actors when Daryl meets Richard at a diner for lunch.  Richard has three desserts and a milkshake on the table in front of him.  Daryl makes a crack about it, and Richard reminds him that they are addicts.  It’s in their nature to be compulsive, even with food.  Good writing here, from Tod Carroll, who doesn’t take for granted how a recovering addict lives with himself, for the rest of his life, from one day to the next.

Carrol offers up other special scenes.  We’ve all seen the staged AA meetings where the character stands up, says his name and the others say hello back.  Tod Carroll goes a step further.  Morgan Freeman as Craig is a smart character who sees past the well to do appearance, and smiling face of one young female character and calls her out for being high right in front of the group.  He immediately asks her to leave, and rather than come off embarrassed, she exits the room.  The rest of the group, Daryl included, are shocked.  They are only beginning to learn how people like them function only on the dependency of the drug and drink.

Kathy Baker portrays another addict that Daryl becomes attached to.  She’s also very good in her role as the lonely woman with the boyfriend who treats her like dirt, yet she can’t imagine anyone better for her; not even Daryl as he’s moving on a positive path towards recovery, and wants to begin a life with her.

Caron and Carroll focus the script of Clean And Sober on a variety of ways that addiction affects different walks of life.  It’s fortunate that the film does not fall into the trap of melodrama.  Chemical dependency is an ugly ordeal that destroys so many lives, not just the abuser.  Relationships are tested.  The will to function is also tested.  As well, the endurance to remain clean and sober is tested. 

This film might be from the late 1980s, but I’d argue that its themes and messages remain prevalent today.  Alcohol and drug addiction still stand as leading killers within the country.  I believe violations of DUI are not taken seriously enough.  Alcohol and drugs are too easily accessible and affordable, thereby feeding the illness.  Ultimately, we can only be responsible for ourselves.  One way to hold fast to our committments is to observe and learn.  Clean And Sober will allow you to do just that.

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