"Clean and Sober's" (citywide) Daryl Poynter is as nasty a piece of work as you could ever hope to avoid. Past master at fast-talking the "fools" around him, he has now moved his focus inward to convince himself of a few crucial untruths: He is controlling his cocaine habit. His drinking is recreational. He will return that $92,000 he borrowed from his firm's escrow account. And the young woman pillowing his frowzy head this bleary morning is not growing colder by the minute.
The legend about alcoholics is that you have to bottom out before you can find your way up again. But as Michael Keaton's Daryl downs one last brewski before dodging into a rehab center's 21-day program, he seems to be the only one who doesn't realize that his worst hour has already struck.
He's a physical ruin; his nerves are a jangle of frayed synapses; friendship is a long-exhausted word to his upwardly mobile crowd and--in the case of his young, hospitalized bedmate--the police have asked him not to leave town.
Roughly every 20 years, a film is made that holds the mirror unwaveringly up to the excesses of its day: "The Lost Weekend," "Days of Wine and Roses" and now "Clean and Sober," directed by "Moonlighting's" Glenn Gordon Caron and written by Tod Carroll.
Like the two earlier films, "Clean and Sober" could hardly be called recreational movie-going, but it should be mandatory. And that's even considering its slippages in story construction. (The film is rated R for blunt language and brief nudity.)
But its characters, particularly Keaton's self-destructive Daryl and Kathy Baker's seductive, wavering fellow addict Charlie, are daringly and consummately played. With anyone as scuzzy as Daryl--and to think of a character his equal you probably have to go back to "Sweet Smell of Success"--part of the fascination comes from seeing how deep the fault line runs. Caron and Carroll have managed the almost impossible; there is truly no reading Daryl until the last second of the last scene.
Causeway House, this grungy, caring, tough-as-need-be rehab center somewhere on the outskirts of Philadelphia, is actually Poynter's own idea, but only because he needs a place to go while things cool down on the outside. Morgan Freeman, as a recovering addict onto every trick in a fellow addict's repertoire, heads Daryl's unit, filled with all ages and sexes of patients. (Henry Judd Baker's raging giant Xavier and Claudia Christian's yuppie Iris are particularly noteworthy.)
Causeway becomes the common ground between Daryl and steel-mill worker Charlie, who reads him like a $2 clock and barely tolerates him. But Charlie isn't the greatest judge of men; she's in her 10th year with dumb, petty hood Lenny (Luca Bercovici), a very bad idea indeed. As the addicts move to outside AA meetings, Daryl crosses paths with Dirks (M. Emmet Walsh, in an especially shining performance), who sizes him up immediately but offers to become his sponsor anyway.
What happens before the 21 days are over is that the movie has split in two. In one smoldering sequence at the graduates' dance, Charlie's funny, up-front sexuality captures every shred of the audience's affection. (They've certainly been unable to transfer much of it to Daryl.) From this scene on, we measure every man by whether he's good for her or not. Lenny is clearly poison, but is Daryl any less lethal? After looking out for No. 1 so attentively for so long, you worry that he even knows there is a No. 2.
If what we have is a love story, it has too long an introduction before both characters are in place. If it's a cliffhanger about recovering addicts, then it's slowed down by an unfolding love story.
Actually, "Clean and Sober" is both, awkwardly folded together though its elements may be. And what finally happens is that we fall into the hands of these splendid actors, every last believable one of them, and the power and the veracity of their ensemble makes the slippages a little less noticeable. (Although where in the name of veracity did those police disappear to after the first sequence!?!)
You might wish that director Caron, with his first feature, had trusted himself more at the end, hadn't fallen back on a round of applause and a battery of "spotlights" for his finish--Keaton certainly doesn't need them. And you might wish that the questions of class differences, barely alluded to, had been given the weight they needed. More than anything else, they might be the wedge between these two disparate lovers.
Yet there is a momentum here, a quality of risk and an urgency to the story that sweeps almost every quibble away. And if squinting at the characters through an eminently realistic bluish haze of cigarette smoke makes you yearn for Clean and Sober and Smoke Free, well, one day and one addiction at a time may be the best you can hope for.
'CLEAN AND SOBER'
A Warner Bros. release of an Imagine Entertainment production of a Glenn Gordon Caron film. Producers Tony Ganz, Deborah Blum. Director Caron. Executive producer Ron Howard. Screenplay Tod Carroll. Co-producer Jay Daniel. Camera Jan Kiesser. Editor Richard Chew. Production design Joel Schiller, art direction Eric W. Orbom. Set designer Greg Papalia, set decorator Don Remacle. Costumes Robert Turturice. Sound Ron Judkins. Music Gabriel Yared. With Michael Keaton, Kathy Baker, Morgan Freeman, M. Emmet Walsh, Luca Bercovici, Tate Donovan, Henry Judd Baker, Claudia Christian.
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).