This post was originally published on May 23, 2016.
In sobriety, I’ve often turned to my DVD collection and Netflix to see shadows of who and what I used to be. I don’t go looking for them, but I appreciate the glimpses of my old bleary-eyed despair, lost trains of thought, abandoned promises, joyless solitude and the blind, confident insistence to others that I wasn’t drunk. Movies are probably the only genuine connection I have—outside of an AA meeting—to the simpatico of someone who understands alcohol the way I did. Most films get alcoholism wrong, and that’s what makes the rare good ones—The Verdict, The Spectacular Now, Smashed—so affecting.
It’s probably hard to convincingly act drunk, since it’s a mask that’s constantly sliding off your face, but I bet it’s not unlike trying to act sober when you’re completely wasted. It’s also difficult to capture the slippery details of alcoholism without it being hyperbole, a random character flaw, convenient plot device, or laughably understated. What’s worse than bad depictions of alcoholism, though, is seeing recovery done wrong on the screen. After all, it’s the cardinal sin of almost every lead speech I’ve heard in AA meetings: the speaker spends 45 minutes detailing their childhood trauma and dozens of low points, before suddenly arriving at, “And now everything’s all better.” Most movies about alcoholism are exactly the same. Maybe it’s naïve of me to think that filmmakers have a responsibility to accurately portray recovery, but it’s disrespectful to addiction and dangerous to people seeking help when they don’t. Here are ten of the very worst examples of recovery in film.
1) Crazy Heart
Jeff Bridges plays the hell out of Otis “Bad” Blake, a faded country star whose life has gotten caught up in an alcoholic cycle of one-night stands and tiny barroom stages. It’s a compelling character story with terrific music. I absolutely love the moment he writes “The Weary Kind” before our eyes, the song essentially just falling out of him, and Bridges plays it like he really is just coming up with it on the fly. Still, for everything the movie gets right about creativity, it gets completely wrong about recovery. The film pretty much glosses over his stint in rehab as he tells his friend (Robert Duvall): “I think I’ve got it licked,” he says of his alcoholism. And, apparently, that’s that. It’s a false note in a movie all about hitting the right musical ones.
Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling 2000 film about the drug war covers so much ground and involves so many characters that it’s its own sort of marvel. That said, it’s never more grounded or interesting than when it focuses on the family of Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas). The movie’s often so good that I’m willing to ignore how contrived it is to have the drug czar’s own daughter get hooked on heroin. The real problem is that it fast-forwards straight from her bottom to her attendance in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I feel cheated of the details that brought her there.
3) Iron Man 2
I’m no comic book aficionado, but it’s my understanding that there’s a pretty renowned storyline in Marvel’s The Invincible Iron Man where Tony Stark battles alcoholism. It’s even called “Demon in a Bottle.” That said, the storyline is somewhat shoe-horned into the first Iron Man sequel, in a movie already overstuffed with nonsense (like Mickey Rourke playing a Russian nuclear scientist with laser whips). There is one notable scene when Robert Downey Jr. gets to play Tony Stark as completely wasted in his Iron Man suit. But the movie is really a wasted opportunity to let the disease play itself out as a villain in its own right.
4) Cedar Rapids
This little 2001 comedy dips its toe into some pretty deep waters. Its main character—a naïve insurance salesman played by Ed Helms—goes from never having been on a business trip to getting drunk in a pool to smoking crystal meth and starting fights. It’s all supposedly played for laughs, but that’s part of the reason the movie left such a bad taste in my mouth. I get that Helms’s business trip is supposed to be cartoonish, but taking it to such delirious heights (or depths) without any real consequence, keeps the movie itself from ever arriving anywhere worth going.
This is essentially Billy Madison re-made with slow-motion kung-fu fighting, machine guns and Seth Rogen. It’s kind of a mess of a movie. It’s also one of the many films that takes its central character, who is an irresponsible, hard-partying brat and sweeps his problems under the rug for the rest of the film. His obvious issues are never to be discussed again, under the guise of him “growing up.”
In this flick, we’re re-introduced to hero cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) in the back of a police escort van. He’s dealing with a five-alarm hangover, on leave from the force and pulled into a cat-and-mouse game with a terrorist. He’s given some Tylenol and a cup of coffee in the opening scene, which is apparently all it takes to stop drinking and survive an entire day of being shot at and solving math problems with bombs.
I only remember this movie because I sneaked a bottle of Parrot Bay into it. By the time Julia Stiles’s character, Kat, gets sloppy drunk and starts dancing on a kitchen table, I had an amazing buzz going. Still, even then, I knew this was as inauthentic as screen drinking got. Instead of unraveling or puking, minutes after bashing her head into a chandelier and falling off the table into the arms of a bewildered Heath Ledger, she’s full of witty banter. Yeah right.
Jeff Goldblum essentially reprises his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park here—only this time, he gets hammered but snaps out of it just in time to save the world from an alien invasion. I remember laughing out loud when he comes out of an epic drunk to figure out how to help the aliens “catch a cold.” It’s as if he needed to be in the right drunken state of mind to even come up with something so stupid that it works.
Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a massive alcoholic, but a cultured one, in this 2004 comedy. He knows just enough about the viticulture of cabernets to make it seem like he’s not just a low-bottom drunk, even though he most certainly is. He drinks to drown out his disappointments and inadequacies and casually lies to other people to make himself feel better. I identify with him on so many levels, but for all the film gets right (the joyless drinking of a cherished wine out of a fast-food coffee cup), it gets wrong in not showing us any consequences beyond loneliness and depression.
10) Walk the Line
I remember first seeing this movie on an airplane, and the flight wasn’t long enough for us to catch the whole thing. In fact, it ended right after Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) wakes up in an all-too-brief stay in detox and June (Reese Witherspoon) tells him everything’s going to be all right—that God’s given him a second chance. The movie shortcuts Cash’s recovery by having him wake up with everything suddenly better and full of promise. While the movie ended too abruptly for a planeful of people watching it, the storytelling about his newfound sobriety felt just as abrupt.
BONUS: Any James Bond movie
I’ve gotten so good at showing my young children action sequences from James Bond movies that when Roger Moore recently spoke on-screen, one of my sons went: “Wait, James Bond talks?” And that moment was pretty revealing to me: Bond in the films is oftentimes seems more a mute stuntman than an actual human being. But, there’s hard, committed drinking underneath it all (which this nifty infographic sums up pretty well). Since the landscape of Bond movies is as bloodless as it is fantastical, it’s easy to forget that 007 is outrunning just as many personal demons as he is henchmen’s bullets.