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Glitz & Glamor: Stylized vs. Realistic Views of Addiction in Movies

Movie projector in a theater

Lights. Camera. Action.

Hollywood is no stranger to making films surrounding substance abuse, even dating as far back as 1936 with Reefer Madness, a propaganda film about marijuana addiction. However, this doesn’t mean all of them are accurate portrayals of drug or alcohol abuse. 

This doesn’t take away from the fact that the movie or show can still be excellent or enjoyable. Movies and shows centered around addiction should still be viewed. This way we can compare and see what is accurate vs. inaccurate. Many of these shouldn’t be viewed by children as there is usually adult subject matter present besides drugs and alcohol.

Differentiating Between Stylized and Realistic Depictions

Movies offer an escape from reality. Ironically, the medium also paints a picture of what society is like. The characters we follow are often relatable, so we tend to mimic their actions whether good or bad. Movies allow us to experience different perspectives, which can be helpful when treading unfamiliar territories such as addiction and addiction recovery. 

Seeing is believing, but not necessarily in this case. We must be careful when watching the portrayal of alcohol and drugs on screen as some depictions may not be shown in an accurate fashion. For example, there are some biopics like The Doors that exaggerated Jim Morrison’s alcoholism and drug use for the sake of drama

Therefore, it’s important to know the warning signs and aftereffects of addiction. If we educate ourselves about substance abuse, then we will be able to differentiate between what’s true, embellished, or just plain false. 

Stylized Depictions of Addiction in Movies

Substance abuse is often portrayed in a stylized, romanticized, glamorized, or exaggerated manner. This portrayal can serve comedic purposes, or it may selectively highlight the “benefits” of a certain substance while concealing or downplaying the consequences.

Pineapple Express (2008) is the exact opposite of Refer Madness – it gives a positive connotation around marijuana, going as far as saying it enhances food, music, and even sex.
Excessive marijuana use by Dale (Seth Rogen) and Saul (James Franco) results in dangerous situations played for laughs. The negative effects, such as lethargy, paranoia, and hallucinations, are downplayed for comedic purposes. Glorifying marijuana use through comedy further undercuts the serious side effects of it.  

2011’s Limitless has a unique premise, yet the execution falls short with major issues regarding the film’s fictional drug NZT-48, which has the power to unlock more than 10% of the brain. The visuals do capture the drug’s side effects on Eddie (Bradley Cooper). However, at the climax of the movie, the villain Gennady says that he injected the drug into his bloodstream to enhance the positive effects, but also lessen the withdrawal symptoms. If the positive effects heighten, it logically follows that the symptoms would too. At the end of the movie, Eddie reveals that he perfected the drug and weaned himself off it while still retaining the abilities without side effects. These are just ways to raise the stakes for our characters and set up possible sequels.  

Stylized Depictions of Addiction in TV

The cold open for the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sometimes takes place in the early morning, which would be fine if The Gang hadn’t already been drinking. In the episode “Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games”, Dee (Kaitlin Olsen) remarks in an “of course it is” tone that drinking IS the game. In another episode, “The Gang Gets Quarantined,” the Paddy’s Pub crew falls ill due to alcohol withdrawals. Much like with Pineapple Express, the results of addiction are meant to be humorous. In doing so, the show suggests that functioning alcoholism (struggling with alcohol use disorder, but can still hold a job, family, and friends) is okay and that it adds to the personality of the drinker. 

Realistic Depictions of Addiction in Movies

The obvious problem with stylized portrayals of addiction is that glorifying these substances persuades us to try them. A realistic portrayal of substance abuse shows the dangers of addiction, which forces us to assess ourselves.

Scarface 1983 cocaine scene

Scarface (1983) contains one of the most infamous scenes and lines in Hollywood history – where Tony Montana (Al Pacino) buries his face in cocaine. This exaggerated action emphasizes Tony’s love of cocaine and shows just how far-gone he is. He’s impulsive and makes bad decisions as a result. The film excellently demonstrates the damage excessive drug use can cause to relationships and how our addictions consume us. Interestingly enough, Scarface was written by Oliver Stone as a cautionary tale, due to his first-hand experience with cocaine abuse. 

Other Realistic Depictions of Addiction in Movies

The Oscar-nominated A Star is Born (2018) may involve romance on the surface, but at its core is dual diagnosis – how a mental health condition can lead to an addiction. Ultimately, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) isn’t secure with himself. He’s bitter that his career is on the decline, while his wife Aly’s (Lady Gaga) is on the rise. As a result, he developed an alcohol dependency to cope. Maine also takes painkillers for his tinnitus (ringing in the ear) but refuses to take action to prevent further damage. He has now become addicted to these painkillers. Had Maine sought the addiction treatment he so desperately needed, he could have potentially avoided his tragic end.

Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) is arguably one of the more accurate depictions of drug abuse to be put on screen. Each character suffers from a different outcome from their addiction. For example, Harry (Jared Leto) needs to have his arm amputated. As a reference to the film’s title, the character’s addictions derail their respective hopes and dreams. We see how drug addiction progresses, as Aronofsky explains the lengths drug addicts will go to feed their addiction. These characters have become so dependent on substances that they are unable to get sober, leading to their own demise. When the grim and disturbing nature of a film makes for a difficult watch, then the film gets its message across effectively. 

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