Michael Keaton did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning NSFC, for portraying Daryl Poynter in Clean and Sober.
What helps the film along greatly is its cast including M. Emmet Walsh, Morgan Freeman and Kathy Baker. Michael Keaton though is of course the center of the film, and the one who makes it. In the same year as perhaps his most iconic role, or at least his most iconic role he doesn't have to share, with Beetlejuice where he played the madcap and grotesque "humanbuster", this should stand in quite the contrast as a very down to earth drama. Although that is true in some way but the roles, and films for that matter depend greatly on the unique presence of Keaton. Frankly it just seems like Keaton ought to have played a coke head at one time or another in the 80's, giving his always kinetic energy as a performer is perfect for this type of role. That is not all wasted by the film or Keaton who captures the role as basically this functioning, though barely, drug addict so effectively. In the early scenes Keaton's work grants the frantic pace needed for the character who is juggling his, embezzlement funded, stock playing, his drugs, and dealing with a fellow drug addled dalliance who dies after a one night stand with him. Keaton captures the cocaine fueled rush in every moment showing this constant excessive rate in his stressed yet so active speech pattern, and his physical energy that is enthusiastic yet pained at the same time.
What Keaton does here not only sets up the character so well, but he also keeps the tone from becoming too heavy in an effective way. It is not that this is a humorous performance by Keaton overall, however, as usual, there is a certain comic styling that Keaton so naturally delivers to the role. It isn't that he's making jokes, but rather makes things completely seem as though his Daryl would treat some of what's going around him with this certain levity. Keaton makes this work quite well particularly early on as he reacts to the other patients at the rehab with a definite lack of sincerity. Daryl after all is only there initially for a place to basically hideout due to his problems relating to his embezzlement and the deceased woman. Keaton reflects that well by portraying as more of an observer having the occasional laugh at those around him. Keaton keeps this so well in character, though he also does well to add just a few signs of withdrawal as he stays in the rehab. Keaton's approach is the right one for cocaine withdrawal as there aren't overt physical aspects, however Keaton does well to present the growing intensity in Daryl is gets further away from his last high. He builds this especially effectively as he loses any of that initial humor, before finally fully lashing out when the counselor (Freeman) refuses to let Daryl misuse the center.
Keaton is terrific in terms of realizing the gradual change in Daryl's character as he continues to stay at the rehab, as his problems do not diminish despite his efforts. Keaton never makes this easy showing well the right combination of desperation that grows in Daryl, but also the way his smarmy disregard for the place begins to slowly fade. Keaton never misses a step here and his work is remarkable in portraying the difficultly of the process. Keaton nicely never makes it this simple as though Daryl is just suddenly fixed by a single thing. He instead, in just the subtle reactions, conveys when the man truly takes something in, and generally loses that overt confidence of a man who thinks he knows all the answers. I find his scenes with M. Emmet Walsh are very strong, as Walsh plays the man who essentially insists on acting as Daryl's sponsor. Their chemistry together really works as Walsh emphasizes the patience, and support, though with a bit of strictness, against Keaton who throws a bit of venom in some of their interactions. Keaton though is great at making that wall Daryl builds real therefore earning the collapse of it as the Walsh's character's words slowly take hold. Again those reactions just are on point as every so often Keaton's eyes bring that sense of a man finally looking at himself, and understanding the chance to better himself.
The weakest portion of the film is its third act as we leave the facility and Daryl tries to reform his life. Now the problem with this is actually stops focusing on Daryl and moves over to this potential romance with a fellow attendee Charlie (Kathy Baker) dealing with her own recovering. Now there isn't anything wrong with Baker and Keaton together. Keaton is even good in not overly presenting the romantic angle too much, always keeping a certain emphasis on the genuine concern Daryl has for her. The writing here though falters as it just doesn't develop itself well enough, and the pacing of this aspect feels off. The film would have been better off just staying with Daryl's story wholly as the secondary one just seems rushed. Keaton to his credit is good in these scenes though they wrongly take the pressure off of him, until the last few minutes of the film. Keaton makes the most of those final scenes still though making his reaction to what happens to Baker's character appropriately moving even if its overall impact is diminished by the writing of it. Keaton then gets to end the film with Daryl's speech at an AA meeting. Keaton's great in this scene, although it's pretty interesting in that he probably gives one of the most realistic movie speeches because he handles it as a guy who isn't use to giving them. He stumbles a bit during it, and there isn't an overt emotion towards the audience, watching him, although we feel it through Keaton's understated approach to revealing what Daryl's word really do mean to him. Although this isn't a great film, Keaton elevates it brilliantly giving the needed substance and power to this study of an addict's recovery.