Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Stories of celebrity lives marred by drug and alcohol addiction generally follow two patterns. The effort to get free either becomes a dismal failure that reflects grave personal problems, or true love and the miracle of success intervenes to guide the addict out of the darkness. The second option is particularly applicable to generic showbiz biographies, as many career stories (such as last year's Johnny Cash bio) are perfectly structured for a miraculous comeback in Act Three.
2004's Clean shows an initially unlikeable addict attempting to restart her life from a particularly disadvantageous position. Although still connected to the music industry she's not a star who can rise from the ashes on a wave of fame and fortune, and she doesn't have a loving life partner to show her the path to salvation. The film is a strong step in the career of its star Maggie Cheung, the beauty known both for costarring roles in Jackie Chan movies and as a favorite of director Kar Wai Wong (In the Mood for Love).
While touring Canada, fading rock notable Lee Hauser (James Johnston) succumbs to a drug overdose, leading to an instant media attack on his wife, ex- music video hostess Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung). Emily serves only a year in jail for possession because she did not provide Lee with the fatal drugs, but nobody believes this, not even Lee's manager. Emerging from jail on a Methodone cure, Emily discovers that her in-laws Albrecht and Rosemary (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry) have custody of her young son Jay (James Dennis). In Paris, old music associates shun or patronize her over the presumption that she is responsible for Lee's addiction and death. Emily has a difficult time keeping any kind of job. But Albrecht is sensitive to Emily's plight and arranges for her to meet her son when Rosemary is in London for medical tests. Desperate to have Jay back, Emily considers absconding with him to a record-cutting session in San Francisco.
Smoothly directed by Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep), Clean is an arresting star vehicle for Maggie Cheung. Her Emily Wang starts as a meddling, heroin-addled millstone around her husband's neck, obviously jealous of his fame as she needles him over his lack of self-confidence. After her stint in prison Emily is left way out on a limb. Judged a no-talent responsible for the ruin of a great performer, she's rejected by her immediate business associates and shunned by the present Paris elite. Emily's former television boss, also her former lover, seems to derive pleasure from seeing her suffer.
Cheung holds our attention at all times. Determined to recover Jay from his domineering grandmother -- who has told the boy that his mother killed his father -- Emily takes a restaurant job with relatives, only to be let go when they mistake her Methadone doses as evidence of continued addiction. She's working in a clothing store when a pair of offers comes in. Her father-in-law Albrecht is willing to take a chance and bring Jay to Paris, even though the boy doesn't want to meet his mother. And a cellmate from Canada has invited Emily to San Francisco to try her hand at a solo recording effort. Accustomed to taking the wild road, Emily could easily spirit Jay away on a jet, betraying Albrecht's trust.
Clean captures a number of specific locales in intriguing detail. Emily slaves in the Chinese restaurant by night and cools her heels in swank offices, waiting for lunch appointments that former friends (and lovers) won't keep. Street friends transport Emily on motorcycles through the streets of Paris in a vain attempt to connect with old rock stars she once helped make famous. Emily's old TV boss, an egotistical lesbian, locks a desired employee in her bathroom for several hours just to show Emily what a really powerful person can get away with. The 'pretty young thing' locked in the bathroom confesses that she thought Emily was the greatest TV personality of all time -- back when she was a kid watching music videos on the tube.
This is Maggie Cheung's movie, and her performance lacks only a breakout scene to make a permanent dent in the memory. Emily soldiers through her predicament but never reaches the defining moment that might put Clean up with the top-rank dramas. Nick Nolte plays the sober and wise grandfather, and is more than slightly amusing when he professes to know little or nothing about drugs and Emily's wild life. Although both of these characters are expertly drawn, they don't form a memorable bond; director Assayas prefers to concentrate on Emily's interior problems. His handling of atmosphere and locations -- the chaos of Lee Hauser's Canadian tour, Emily's modest boarding-house room -- are just as indelible.
Palm Pictures' DVD of Clean presents this handsome production in enhanced widescreen and 5.1 Dolby, with a selection of EPK-style actor and director interviews. Few great insights are offered but Nolte expresses his hearty approval of relaxed French filming schedules. A trailer finishes the package, which begins with an opening anti-poverty PSA starring about 50 top stars. The film is also full-length; we're informed that versions exist that are almost twenty minutes shorter.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Interviews with stars and director, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 4, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson