Unusually optimistic for an exploration of addiction and recovery, Clean and Sober avoids the fatalism of its kindred spirits by being as candid and confessional as the treatment process, allowing its characters to expose their doubt and guilt without cinematic flourish or arrogant moralizing. It nearly slips into mawkish cliché in its closing passages, capitalizing on audience sentimentality, but takes an abrupt turn towards the painfully pragmatic, illustrating the humility and lucidity needed to reclaim a forfeited life.
Cutting between the panicked scrambling of an ill-fated addict (Michael Keaton) and the temperate reflection of a recovering alcoholic (M. Emmet Walsh), the film utilizes both facets of drug dependency, asserting the potential for rehabilitation over the humiliation of intoxication. Though Keaton’s assertive evocation of excess possesses the sniffling and sweat-drenched mannerisms inherent in stereotype, he never lets them overshadow the selfishness that motivates Daryl, opening the door for the self-reflection that accompanies fear and loss.
The first step to eliminating these opportunistic inclinations is to deny his compulsive behavior, a measure taken with pride by his stern and sarcastic addiction counselor, Craig (Morgan Freeman), who spouts out the word “no” with the righteous indignation of an irritated parent. Their protracted interactions take on the rivalry of sport and Keaton and Freeman revel in the belligerent battle of wits served up by Tod Carroll’s curt prose, tempering their performances to avoid histrionics and sidestep the melodrama that plagues tales of redemption.
Ultimately, Craig’s candor proves too confrontational for Daryl, pushing him to stop trying to sustain an irreparable existence and take responsibility for the friends and family left drowning in his wake. Anxious from the castigation and left without a patsy to ply for contraband or cash, Daryl abandons the soul-searching of the group home and attempts to dive back into the bottle, realizing rock bottom as he hoodwinks his mother into paying off embezzled funds. In a moment of pure serendipity, he accidentally phones his AA sponsor (Walsh) in a frenzied state, agreeing to take a “moral inventory” of his faults and own up to the duplicity that fed his habit and destroyed any semblance of a meaningful relationship.
Glenn Gordon Caron exhibits Daryl’s long road to recovery in ellipses, visualizing self-reflection as vacant stretches of time, previously accelerated by the rush of inebriation and irresponsibility. The quiet conviction is unparalleled in mainstream cinema, depicting readjustment as an impossible task, overshadowed by a yearning that will temporarily cure the interminable loneliness. Passion isn’t even enough to fill this void and the script maturely treats Daryl’s obsession with Charlie (Kathy Baker) as nothing more than a “self-important and conceited” distraction from his own shortcomings. The only solution is acceptance and, as the film comes full circle, Daryl admits to his dependence on alcohol and cocaine, understanding that a new beginning is the best outcome an addict can hope for.
Clean and Sober (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1988)
Directed by Glenn Gordon Caron
Written by Tod Carroll
Photographed by Jan Kiesser