After a week spent enduring largely mediocre festival films, watching Clean was a breath of fresh air. But perhaps choosing that sentence as my line of introduction for this review is a bit of a misdirection. Clean is not “fine” or “average” or “middle-of-the-road” let alone even “good,” the latter word used less frequently by me than the ones that preceded it to describe festival films. Clean is irrefutably, deliciously bad. But there is something unironically beautiful about movies that are just plain awful, movies that dare to provoke your senses at all instead of simply sating them with something pleasant and “competent enough.” If anything can be taken away from director Paul Solet’s Clean—and, well, to call it Solet’s is a bit of a stretch, as Adrien Brody is credited with producing, co-writing and composing the score alongside being the film’s principal actor—it’s that sometimes, even a lot of the time, a bad film is better than an OK one.
Clean (Brody, and not Mr. Clean, mind you; just Clean) is a garbageman and recovering addict with a dark past. This is articulated in a voiceover which opens the film and guides it sporadically throughout, highlighting a firm commitment to subtext-as-text. In a near unintelligible growl, Brody mutters “I’ve got blood on my hands. I’m stained. I’m dirty. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wash away the past.” Lines like this are scattered across the duration of the runtime and ultimately elicited genuine hoots and hollers from this critic each time they cropped up. It borders on parody to the point where the otherwise earnest approach to the material is less derisively absurd than it is kind of sweet. This absence of self-awareness is no clearer than in the fact that, in Clean’s small town overtaken by poverty, he’s one of very few white faces to be found. He once had a Black daughter, who Clean frequently sees in visions and dreams of her life and premature death, and who he attempts to seek a surrogate replacement for in a local teen he looks out for, Dianda (Chandler DuPont). Clean is a friend to all his Black community members (including a pawn shown owner played by RZA) and only a true enemy to the other white character. Mobster Michael (played by the great Glenn Fleshler), becomes Clean’s primary antagonist (other than himself), following a fraught altercation with Michael’s son, Mikey (Richie Merritt).
Of course, Clean is not really interested in exploring matters of race, or even acknowledging that elephant in the room beyond a quick scene in which Michael berates Mikey for having Black friends and listening to rap music. Clean is only interested in positioning Clean as a grizzled antihero on an onerous quest for redemption. It’s hard to say if doing more than dancing around the matter would make the film better or stupendously worse. But judging by the end product, and that Brody and Solet penned the script together (Clean is actually the pair’s second collaboration), it’s possible that we dodged a bullet, if not an iteration of the film that is miles funnier. Still, it’s hard to not appreciate the film we got, which does nothing short of delight with lines like, “Some things you can never clean up, no matter how hard you try;” the composition of Brody’s sick beats, which amount to little more than hip-hop stock music; and haphazard attempts at commenting on the very real opioid crisis which has gripped the United States, presented through a TV news blast that only communicates the very obvious. This is in addition to the laughably choreographed fight sequences and horrendous washed-out lighting and cinematography, all of which I would argue end up as assets to the film instead of detriments.
It’s difficult being a fan of Brody in the year 2022, but many of us are out here in the trenches, still putting in the work. Beyond 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and a string of films that I’m not convinced are actually real, Brody’s recent, one-episode appearance on HBO’s Succession was celebrated by fans upon its announcement last summer, and his turn as shady art dealer Julian Cadazio in his pal Wes Anderson’s newest, The French Dispatch, was one of the film’s very best. Anderson, perhaps more than any other director, knows how to get the best performances out of Brody. It makes it interesting why Brody seems so disinterested—or, perhaps, unable—to work with another director who might be able to match Anderson (though, it should be noted Brody has a significant part in Andrew Dominik’s highly-anticipated, fictionalized Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde, playing Monroe’s husband, playwright Arthur Miller). But Brody himself feels that, despite garnering a Best Actor Oscar win back in 2003 for The Pianist, Hollywood insisted on typecasting him in serious, dramatic lead roles while having the build and face of a character actor. This latter feature is something that Anderson, on the other hand, intimately appreciates, which Brody has even attested to.
Regardless of Brody’s odd modern career, Clean is a remarkably silly vanity project that I was overjoyed to watch. Yes, my brain is addled by a seemingly endless string of middling indie films that I came away from almost every time thinking “well, it wasn’t awful,” but which left me feeling hollow inside. This awful movie actually made me feel something, and the point of any work of art is to elicit strong feelings, is it not? Brody and Solet’s Clean is certainly a January-release film if I’ve ever seen one, and it is a bad movie. But I would take a million horrendous movies over a single alright one any day of the week.
Director: Paul Solet
Writers: Paul Solet, Adrien Brody
Starring: Adrien Brody, Glenn Fleshler, Richie Merritt, Chandler Ari DuPont, Mykelti Williamson, RZA, Michelle Wilson, John Bianco
Release Date: January 28, 2022
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.