The most memorable scene in Glenn Gordon Caron’s “Clean and Sober” – now over 30 years old, but still, for my money, the last word in addiction drama — is a phone call. The addict at the story’s center (Michael Keaton) is desperate for money to dig himself out of a drug-induced hole, or for money to buy more drugs, or both. So he phones his mother in the middle of the night, muddles through the minimal amount of small talk, and proposes she loan him some money by taking out a second mortgage on the house. When she reacts badly to that, he asks if they were planning on leaving him anything in the will. Caron’s camera stays on Keaton, so we don’t see or hear her half of the conversation—but we can guess at it, particularly when, after a long pause, he rubs his eyes and asks, “Ma. What are you cryin’ for?”
For a long time, addiction dramas were about the addict. Lately — perhaps due to the wheeziness of those stories— we’ve gone to the other side of that phone call. Last year’s “Ben is Back” was one attempt to peek into the cycle of addiction and recovery from the perspective of a parent; Rodrigo García’s “Four Good Days” is another. The mother in question is Deb (Glenn Close), a nice suburban grandma, out here just doing her best; the addict is her 31-year-old daughter Molly (Mila Kunis), who turns up on her porch in the opening scene, trying and failing to unlock the front door. “We changed the locks last year,” Deb tells her, “after you and Eric stole the guitars.”
These opening scenes are the film’s best, because they offer an entry point we haven’t seen before (or haven’t seen as often). Molly pleads with her mother to let her in, just for a moment, just for a nap, just for a shower, she wants to get straight, for real this time. And Deb has to put on her iron chin and tell her, “Stop. I’ve heard this speech for ten years. Come back when you’re clean.” She closes the door, and García stays on her side of it — the stern face crumples, and we see how difficult it is for her to be as cold as she has to be.
Molly has been through detox 14 times, so we get the sense that these scenes are a playlet they’ve performed many times, playing the roles they learned long ago. Eventually, Deb takes her to detox yet again; when she finishes, her doctor modifies the usual “heroin has a 97% relapse rate” death sentence with a life raft: she can take an “opiate antagonist” shot, which will block the receptor that responds to opioids. It could end her addiction. But she has to be clean for a week to take it; minus time in detox, she has to stay off drugs for four more days.
So there’s your title, and there’s your conflict. García’s best films (I’m thinking specifically of “Mother and Child”and “Nine Lives”) are about empathy, particularly within the familial dynamic, and he handles these relationships with delicacy and sensitivity — not just between Deb and Molly, but between Deb and her second husband Chris (Stephen Root), or with Molly’s ex-husband Sean (Joshua Leonard), with whom she coordinates visits with the grandkids. The way these associations are shaded in, the little bits of history and understanding weaved into their dialogue and non-verbal interactions, are uncommonly rich.
But “Four Good Days” can only stave of the pro forma requirements of the addiction drama for so long. Once the relationships are defined and the stakes are set, the picture proceeds pretty much as expected, with the prescribed heartfelt apologies, confessional monologues, angry blow-ups, and threatened relapses. Deb must come to terms with her own failings, shortcomings, and regrets; Molly must give her mother a reason to trust her again; you know the drill.
It reaches its nadir when Molly grants an old teacher’s request to come talk to her class, giving a big speech that feels like an intended Oscar clip — “The only thing I care about is getting high” — complete with soft, sad piano music underneath. (The score, by Edward Shearmur, is depressingly paint-by-numbers.) And then we have the obligatory frantic search through the horrifying drug spot, and the utterly inexplicable climax, and the ending that is, frankly, a cop-out — and that’s before they again trot out the jigsaw puzzle this mother and daughter are assembling together, which may as well be a painting of the word “METAPHOR.”
Close is, unsurprisingly, excellent (García previously directed her, to an Oscar nomination, in “Albert Nobbs“); her breakdowns are heartrending, and there’s something commendable about the shading she gives to a line like “I’m happy you’re home,” because “happy” is a simple word, and this is not a simple situation. Most of Kunis’s best moments are silent, reactive; nothing she says is as moving as the shot of her just sitting and listening to her estranged children, finding out everything she’s missed. And Root gets a few nice moments, particularly a speech dismissing all the tiny things we, as parents, come to believe explain everything that’s gone wrong.
So yes, as a performer’s showcase, “Four Good Days” does the job. But there’s not much to see here otherwise. [C]