Stopping short just as it’s about to delve beneath the obvious surface of addiction, Clean and Sober holsters its characters’ messy lives for a tidy, step-by-step process of recovery.

The central character Daryl Poynter (Michael Keaton) can’t even bring himself to admit he’s an addict until the movie’s final moments. Here he is, though — entering rehab for self-preserving reasons, trying his damnedest to score a fix while in there, and ultimately standing in judgment over other characters who have made a concerted effort — a changed man for no discernible reason other than luck and circumstance.

That Daryl recovers while fighting tooth and nail not to is entirely dishonest, and that’s one of the reasons Keaton’s performance is more than just impressively unchained and vulnerable. Daryl’s early desperation, resulting from a police investigation into a woman who didn’t wake up in his bed — the result of a heart attack from their cocaine binge the night before — is palpable. The police want him to stay in town, his coworker Martin (Brian Benben) questions him about a missing escrow account from work, and he has no place to hide.

Then he hears an ad on the radio for a confidential detox and rehabilitation clinic. Daryl wants to bide his time away from the world in a place where no one can find him, but he doesn’t expect that his counselor, Craig (Morgan Freeman), actually wants him to break his addiction.

Keaton plays Daryl with a not-too-unwilling reluctance. He yells, screams, and slams doors when Craig kicks him out for making unauthorized phone calls but doesn’t try too hard to obtain cocaine when he’s back in the real world. He calls his dealer (who’s had enough of him), tears apart his office, and tries to convince his mother to give him his inheritance money while she’s still alive to see him put it to some good. That moment is as close to rock bottom as Daryl gets, so Keaton plays it as though it is.

There’s a glint in Keaton’s eye through the whole movie, as though he’s trying to convince someone of something other than what he’s saying. Whether he’s flirting with fellow addict Charlie (Kathy Baker), whose long-term, live-in boyfriend (Luca Bercovici) serves as an enabler without bluntly doing so, or glossing over his current problems with his AA sponsor Richard (M. Emmet Walsh), this is a man in denial. Even in moments alone, there’s a sense of Daryl attempting to persuade himself of a lie.

With a few exceptions, screenwriter Tod Carroll’s depiction of Daryl and his fellow addicts’ road to renewal is safe, without mess, and straightforward. There are group therapy sessions (during which Daryl — to show his resistance — stays silent), AA confessionals (none from Daryl for the same reason, although Richard’s, intercut through Daryl’s story, get to the heart of things), random drug tests, and dancing at a graduation party.

Just when the movie seems to have made its point, Carroll’s script takes it a bit further, showing how Daryl must start over again. There is some truth to this section, although it’s weighed down by the ongoing back-and-forth between Daryl and Charlie (he saying he just wants what’s best for her, even if it’s not being with him, and she realizing her boyfriend is wrong for her but feeling obligated to him).

Keaton’s performance doesn’t necessarily hold Clean and Sober together, but it does rise above the material.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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