Movies and TV programs have always tried to tell compelling stories surrounding dramatic themes — like addiction. But in spite of this, attempts to illustrate drugs in movies and the consequences that come with substance abuse don’t always stick the landing.
In 2014, we published a list of the Top 10 Most Realistic Movies About Addiction, highlighting some examples of movies that admirably painted a vivid picture of the struggles that come with abusing drugs and alcohol. Now, we’re taking the opposite approach; here are some movies that tried to realistically depict addiction and failed — and some that didn’t try at all.
1. Scarface (1983)
Perhaps one of the most well-known movies about drug trafficking and abuse, Scarface wasn’t initially very highly regarded by critics but would go on to become a perfect example of a cult classic film.
In the movie, a Cuban refugee named Tony Montana comes to Florida to make a new life for himself, gets mixed up in the world of cocaine and eventually builds an empire as the most feared drug kingpin in Miami and beyond.
The main criticism against Scarface is that it’s a movie where cocaine use is shown in nearly every scene. With so much drug use and such high stakes, you might think the film’s natural conclusion might involve depicting the fallout, including addiction and the consequences that come from long-term, frequent cocaine use.
On the contrary, however, the movie only glorifies the drug use and violence that are central themes in Scarface. When Montana’s empire finally crumbles, he and his associates are arrested, but at no point are they forced to reckon with the physical and emotional tolls of their substance abuse.
In reality, consuming this much cocaine would have effects that go much deeper than legal troubles, and by choosing not to focus on the entire picture, the movie ends up feeling hollow in its overall impact.
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
File Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the category of films that glorify a gratuitous amount of drug use — in this case, throughout most of the movie’s runtime. Critics railed against the movie’s lack of story development, and it was devoid of likable characters to the degree that it ended up as just under two hours of “fun” drug use.
The movie follows two characters, played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, who are headed to Las Vegas on an assignment to cover a motorcycle event. Instead, they spend the majority of the movie taking LSD and hallucinating around Las Vegas. It’s filled with unrealistic movie scenes that take a lighter view of drug use, making it seem like the only consequences of having day-long acid trips are superficial. In reality, the danger of chronic hallucinogen use is much greater.
3. 28 Days (2000)
(Note, this is a different movie than the zombie flick 28 Days Later!) In 28 Days, Sandra Bullock’s character is an alcoholic, and things come to a head when she shows up incoherently drunk at her sister’s wedding, ruining it with her reckless behavior.
The movie’s central conflict is that she’s ordered to spend 28 days in a rehab facility, which sounds refreshing. After all, so few movies actually depict the realities people addicted to drugs and alcohol face in the effort to turn their life around.
But 28 Days falls flat because it doesn’t accomplish this in the right ways. It’s a comedy, so naturally it has to take a mostly lighthearted view of addiction. But the more glaring flaw is that it depicts Bullock’s addiction as a personality trait, and when she’s “working on it” during treatment, it’s viewed as a character flaw that she needs to fix before she can leave it behind.
4. Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
2013’s Wolf of Wall Street was a success at the box office but a failure in the minds of anyone hoping for a realistic depiction of what it’s like to be a hard-partying financial criminal. It’s the real-life story of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street trader who spent time in prison for defrauding his company’s investors. Despite a fairly faithful retelling of a true story, the film is widely criticized for putting too much focus on glamorous drug and alcohol abuse and not enough on the consequences of this behavior. In the end, Belfort comes off as someone viewers want to emulate, which is a dangerous lesson to teach.
5. The Basketball Diaries (1995)
You might be puzzled to see this one on the list. After all, it’s a movie people praise for its depiction of heroin addiction and recovery — and it appeared on our list as one of the 10 most realistic movies about addiction!
And it deserves the praise it gets, at least in some parts. Despite scenes of intense realism (see The Basketball Diaries withdrawal scene) though, the movie falls flat because of the Hollywood sheen it uses to handle addiction. The movie’s lead, Leonardo DiCaprio, is nearly incapable of looking any less than his glamorous best for most of the movie, and considering that he’s supposed to be struggling with heroin addiction, it makes the entire thing less believable.
Separating Real Addiction From Dramatized Depictions in Media
The issue with movies that depict something as serious as addiction is that they cheapen the experiences of people in treatment and recovery if they don’t complete the execution perfectly. While lighter depictions of drug and alcohol abuse will always be expected in comedies, very few of these films communicate the consequences of substance abuse, especially if it’s not directly relevant to the central conflict of the story.
This can be dangerous in several key ways. First, it gives kids and teens the wrong ideas about drugs. When impressionable young people see drug scenes in movies that make them seem fun with no lasting consequences, they believe this is the truth. This has contributed to a prevalence of binge-drinking culture and a generation unprepared for the potential side effects of chronic drug use.
It also glorifies substance abuse and addiction. When drugs are used as a personality trait and even characters struggling with addiction are trivialized as plot points, it isn’t realistic about the real people who are suffering from addiction every day.
Drug Rehab at FHE Health
Scenes of drugs in movies have created a warped idea of what addiction is actually like for many people, and it may make them less likely to ask for help when they need it.
At FHE Rehab, we offer a range of resources so everyone has access to the help they need. If you or a loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, call us today and learn about all your options.