Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Clean and Sober (1988)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

When the comic star of Night Shift and Beetlejuice tackled his first dramatic role, the result was one of Michael Keaton's best performances ever, earning the National Society of Film Critics Best Actor Award.

Keaton plays real-estate broker Darryl Poyater, whose cocaine habit nearly consumes him until he enters a local detox program promising discretion and privacy. It also guarantees one thing more: the toughest battle of his life. Powerfully directed by Glenn Gordon Caron and boasting other great work from Kathy Baker, Morgan Freeman and M. Emmet Walsh, Clean and Sober is a hard-hitting study of besting personal day at a time.

Director: Glenn Gordon Caron
Cast: Michael Keaton, Kathy Baker, Morgan Freeman, Tate Donovan, Henry Judd Baker, Claudia Christian
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 34 chapters; rated R; 124 min.; $14.98; street date 11/10/98.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/C-/F

As I noted in my review of Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton set his career back on course during 1988. With starring roles in that film and Clean and Sober, he attracted a great deal of attention, which partially resulted in his casting as the title character in 1989’s megahit Batman. Interestingly, this redemption occurred via two extremely different movies.

In contrast to the perverse fantasy romp that is Beetlejuice, we have the much more realistic and down to earth drama of Clean and Sober. While Beetlejuice boasts many elements that make it work, Clean and Sober really only has one: its cast. Get beyond Keaton and supporting actors such as Kathy Baker, Morgan Freeman, and M. Emmet Walsh, and you're dealing with fairly typical TV-movie fare.

Although the possibility that he would "ham it up" seemed great, Keaton largely avoided the pitfalls commonly experienced by comedic actors who turn to drama. At times he goes too broad, but for the most part he keeps himself restrained and believable; Keaton doesn't go to the "feel my pain" excesses that less disciplined actors might.

Despite Keaton's best efforts, however, I'm not terribly sure that I really believed his character's transformation from reckless drunk/druggie to stable recovering drunk/druggie. While his change doesn't occur in the "miraculous" way that some films might display, it still seems too easy for me to fully accept. Keaton plays Daryl Poynter, an embezzling real estate broker who hits rock bottom and enters a rehab center solely to try to hide from the long arm of the law. Much of the first half of the film works hard to establish that Poynter definitely doesn't buy into the whole rehab/AA culture and that he doesn't think he has a problem.

But then all of a sudden he does begin to accept and embrace the notion of a drug and alcohol free lifestyle. It never makes much sense to me why he changes so drastically. I suppose part of it occurs because he meets and falls for Charlie (Baker), another recovering addict; his affection for her enables Poynter to go for wastoid in the first half of the film to attempted-redeemer during the second part as he tries to persuade Charlie to escape her abusive relationship and to keep her from falling back into her old cocaine- loving habits. He doesn't, which I guess is supposed to make the film gritty, but it all seems too artificial to me. We never see Poynter stumble once he's made his commitment, even though he seems like a probable candidate for relapse; instead, the movie has others - Charlie and another rehab center patient - give in to their temptations. That looks like the film wants to have its cake and eat it too; it wants to show us the pitfalls and perils experienced by recovering addicts, but it doesn't want to tarnish the newly shiny image it has given to its protagonist.

In my opinion, that just doesn't wash, and the cowardly way it introduces bathos at the end of the film really ruins the experience. If you haven't seen the movie, I won't give it away, but let's just say the filmmakers try to have both happy and sad endings at the same time, and it deflates any real possibilities for either.

Baker's fine as Charlie. Actually, she's probably better than Keaton, since her character comes across like more of a real person throughout the entire picture, as opposed to the role model Poynter becomes. Freeman provides his usual rock-solid performance as rehab counselor Craig, but it's wasted in an underwritten and largely inconsequential role.

As I alluded earlier, there's little to Clean and Sober that differentiates it from regular TV "Movie of the Week" fare. Sure, it provides a lot more profanity, plus a little nudity, but other than that, it'd fit in well on any of the major networks. Actually, it'd probably work better on something like cable's Lifetime, one of those networks that loves this "real stories of real people dealing with real problems" stuff.

Don't get me wrong: Clean and Sober is by no means a bad film. It's simply extremely mediocre, despite its very capable cast. Nothing here makes it stand out; we've seen it all before, and it's not done in a way that offers any kind of new or unusual experience.

The DVD:

Clean and Sober appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Sober appeared during a period when Warner Bros. flirted with basic, no-frills DVDs that came with a low list price of only $14.98. These seemed like very careless efforts, as they didn’t even bother to letterbox the movies; we mainly got fullscreen transfers that allegedly fell into the “open matte” category, but a few - such as Frantic - looked suspiciously like pan and scan works.

Although the low price points were a plus, these DVDs felt like glorified VHS. Happily, Warner abandoned the program, though they have yet to go back and rectify any of their mistakes; as such, we may be stuck with lackluster releases of films like Sober for quite some time.

Actually, Sober fared better than most of its stablemates, though it remains a perfectly mediocre transfer. While it maintained pretty decent sharpness and focus throughout the entire film - much better than bargain cohorts like Protocol and Doc Hollywood, for example - the movie seemed to be overly flat and drab. Granted, some of the dinginess on display may have been related to design decisions. After all, this isn't The Wizard of Oz; I'm sure they wanted to give the film a muted, subdued appearance. However, the look of the DVD went beyond that; I don't think it was supposed to look quite this dreary and undersaturated. Nonetheless, the picture seemed generally adequate and it shouldn't detract from the experience.

Likewise, the Dolby Surround 2.0 mix of Clean and Sober seemed competent but unspectacular. It was actually a bit more active and lively than I expected, but you won't confuse it for Jurassic Park. Rear channel usage was limited to environmental effects, and it did a passable job of creating a sound field. I believe that even when Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes don't utilize split surrounds - ala Beetlejuice - they usually remain superior to standard 2.0 tracks simply because of the full-range nature of the rear speakers that's unique to the former. In Beetlejuice, sounds from the rear channels matched the caliber of those from the front, but in Clean and Sober, there was a distinct degradation in quality discernible between front and rear; the surrounds consistently sounded harsher and less natural than the main channels. Still, it was a decent little mix for this type of film.

As the "no frills" label would imply, Clean and Sober contains absolutely nothing in the way of supplements. No trailer, no production notes, no captions in any language - not even a photo from the film on the menu's title page! I'm not really complaining, but still...! This DVD is about as basic as it gets; only programs like Pearl Jam’s Single Video Theory - which contains no menus or options of any sort other than two audio tracks - seems more plain.

Clean and Sober might have made a more compelling package with some compelling extras. As it stands, however, this drab set does nothing to enhance a mediocre film. Sober benefits from some excellent actors, but the story itself fails to rise above the level of bland melodrama. The DVD provides watchable but flat picture and sound plus absolutely no supplements. Admittedly, this is a better choice than a VHS copy of Sober, but it remains a very colorless DVD.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
Drama at
Menu:  DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top