Emily Wang (Cheung) is the longtime girlfriend of '80s rocker turned has-been Lee Hauser (James Johnston). Although a better agent would have booked him on "Behind the Music," he instead dies of a drug overdose in a small Canadian steel town, a fate that probably would have befallen Emily, too, if not for this wake-up call. Emily and Lee have a young son, Jay (James Dennis), who's spent his life in Vancouver with Lee's parents, Albrecht and Rosemary (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry). After serving six months for drug possession in connection with Lee's death, Emily visits her in-laws and is told not to contact Jay, who may not warm to his Methadone-addicted mom.
Rebuffed, Emily runs to Paris and London, where she tries to jumpstart her music career. Making money by working odd jobs, including a waitress at a Chinese restaurant, she reconnects with old buddies, while trying to stay off the drugs. But when Albrecht, Rosemary and Jay come to London so the grandmother can receive medical care, Emily finally gets her wish to see her son.
A large chunk of "Clean" concerns itself with Emily trying to stabilize her life. However, these scenes generate no dramatic heat since talk of demo tapes and dead-end jobs only amount to a woman trying not to be homeless. Sure, it's a more street-level approach than Meryl Streep, who sued for the return of her son in the 1979 masterpiece "Kramer vs. Kramer." But wondering whether the rapper Tricky (playing himself) will read her heartfelt letter and champion her cause is just not that engaging.
The dynamic between Emily, Albrecht and Rosemary is where "Clean" begins to fulfill its potential. Rosemary has convinced Jay that Emily essentially killed his father, which makes Emily's job that much harder. But Albrecht knows that someday he and Rosemary won't be around to care for Jay, so the faster Emily can restart her life, the better. These terrific scenes constitute the film's wheelhouse and if Assayas, who wrote the script, could have carved out and expanded on those ideas, he really would have had something. Thematic avenues about reinventing yourself when your old self doesn't cut it anymore are fertile, but the movie doesn't have the conviction to go all the way. Additionally, Assayas keeps throwing uninspired obstacles at Emily: At one point, she must decide between seeing her son and traveling to San Francisco to record a demo tape with a famous music producer. A choice like that is just not dramatically inspiring, especially since Emily finds a way to do both. There is also a brief and odd detour involving Emily's lesbian ex-lover, who refuses to give her a job.
In a subdued turn, Nolte holds the film together as a decent man who sympathizes with Emily but is no fool. Cheung is fine, although one wonders how the film would have fared with a more electric actress better able to engage our emotions. On the tech side, there is admirable use of Canadian locales and DP Eric Gautier ("The Motorcycle Diaries") skillfully provides the pretty pictures. Starring Nick Nolte and Maggie Cheung. Directed and written by Olivier Assayas. Produced by Edouard Weil, Xavier Giannoli, Xavier Marchand and Niv Fichman. A Palm release. Drama. Rated R for drug content, language and brief nudity. Running time: 110 min