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Do Hollywood Depictions of Addiction and Treatment Hit Their Mark?

Many times in popular movies, depictions of recreational drug use are played for big laughs.

It’s Meryl Streep smoking weed in the guest bathroom in It’s Complicated and, as a result, acting quite bizarrely at her son’s graduation party. It’s a hyper-maniacal Ben Stiller lighting up the dance floor after mistakenly adding cocaine to his coffee instead of cane sugar in Starsky & Hutch.

It’s Robert Downey Jr. – who, incidentally, spent a good chunk of time behind bars between 1996-2001 for illegal drug possession and use – accidentally getting high on medicinal marijuana with Zach Galifianakis while driving from Atlanta to Los Angeles in Due Date. The genre of stoner movies has grown so much that Buzzfeed has a ranking1 of which are the most “ridiculously entertaining.”

Former Hollywood producer John West understands Hollywood’s drug culture from his own experience with addiction. You can hear his story of growth from addiction to recovery to helping other Hollywood and high-profile people to recover too.

Listen to his story now on the Recovery Unscripted podcast on iTunes, Spotify and Google Play.

Of course, the major flaw with the aforementioned entertainment is how it rarely depicts any substantial consequences for drug use, casual and otherwise. Even the so-called slackers who smoke marijuana on the regular are practically given a free pass for being perpetually high. Lack of ambition, short-term memory problems, anti-social behavior or the potential for future addiction and worrisome health problems are simply glossed over.

And while most moviegoers probably aren’t tuning in for a public service announcement on the dangers of drug use, there have been a few popular movies and television series recently that have provided some accurate teachable moments and opportunities for meaningful conversation after the credits roll.


Making the Grade

illegal meth labWhile there’s been some impassioned debate2 on whether Breaking Bad – the award-winning television series starring Bryan Cranston as the high school science teacher turned methamphetamine maker in the face of an inoperable lung cancer diagnosis – helped or hurt3 the national conversation surrounding meth addiction, there has been a slew of programming recognized for its realism and inherent value in highlighting the perils of addiction in meaningful ways.

In the same year that the 1987 movie Wall Street depicted an up-and-coming stockbroker’s success at work being rewarded with cocaine, President Ronald Reagan noted how, “Too often, drug use is still shown in a positive, upbeat way on our screens.”4 Over three decades, the same could probably still be said, but the tide is changing.

Whether it’s the film Beautiful Boy with Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, which captures the heartbreaking cycle of addiction from survival to relapse to recovery and back again over the course of many years, or the popular Netflix television series BoJack Horseman, there have been strides in how drug use, addiction and the toll it takes on people’s lives are shown on screen.

In BoJack Horseman’s most recent season, “addiction gets a rare, honest, compassionate look” according to a review in Polygon.5 To anyone who has struggled with addiction, BoJack’s actions feel eerily relatable and familiar, especially his denial that he even has a problem in the first place. And instead of glamorizing the crazy adventures BoJack has experienced under the influence in previous seasons, the most recent installment deals with far more complex realities, including BoJack’s substantiated fears that he might never be able to change.

Instead of glorifying drug use, it showcases the flawed survival instincts of someone who can’t seem to quit, plus the total mental anguish of feeling powerless, something many who struggle with addiction can relate to.

BoJack’s drug of choice this season, opioids, can’t help but strike a chord. It’s a timely message not just in Hollywood, but in all parts of the country, especially in light of recent polls indicating that opioid abuse has rural America profoundly worried.6

Celebrity or not, the lure of drug use and the problems of addiction can affect anyone. Actor Steve Ford – son of President Gerald Ford and recovery pioneer Betty Ford – discussed how his addiction followed him from the White House to Hollywood in his interview with the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Listen to it now on iTunes, Spotify and Google Play.

The Very Un-Rosy Reality of Recovery

After a slew of America’s Sweetheart-type roles, Sandra Bullock convincingly played against that type in 28 Days. Portraying a newspaper columnist whose excessive drinking causes her to make a big, potentially dangerous scene at her sister’s wedding. When given the choice between rehab and jail time, her character, Gwen, naturally chooses the former.

Forced to face the fact that she doesn’t just drink a lot, but that she’s an alcoholic, the film does an admirable job of portraying an addict’s reluctance to admit a problem, the cycle of addiction that’s present in so many families, the powerful influence of a significant other you’ve used with in the past, the fuzziness of someone’s memories when substance abuse has lingered for years and the difficult road to recovery.

Where the effort falls apart, however, is the attempt to make 28 Days a feel-good story complete with a cheery Hollywood ending. In less than a month’s time, Gwen barrels through the recovery process, falls in love with Viggo Mortensen’s character, which is never recommended during the recovery process, and – spoiler alert – significantly changes the course of several people’s lives in the process.

young people meeting for 12 step meeting or group therapyIn stark contrast to 28 Days, Ashley McKenzie’s first feature-length film, Werewolf, takes a far more stark, realistic approach. Hoping to take it several steps further than most films do in showing how difficult life is when you’re recovering from a steady diet of methadone, Werewolf isn’t feel-good fun with a satisfying love story.

Set on Canada’s east coast, McKenzie wasn’t interested in repeating the well-worn terrain of showing drug use in gory detail (think: Trainspotting or The Wolf of Wall Street). Rather, McKenzie focused on the highs and lows of treatment and just how difficult recovery is when someone is entrapped in a codependent relationship that has always centered around drugs in the past.7

Hollywood continues to crank out films that attempt to draw us to box offices weekly but aren’t always sensitive to the truths about addiction and recovery. Share this article if you enjoyed it, found it interesting or know someone who might benefit from it.

By Christa Banister, Contributing Writer


1 Peitzman, Louis. “32 Ridiculously Entertaining Stoner Movies.” Buzzfeed, July 23, 2014.

2 Nott, Laura. “Breaking Bad: When Pop Culture Takes on the Drug Trade.” Elements Behavioral Health, August 14, 2013.

3 Ewing, Blake. “Breaking Bad Normalizes Meth, Argues Prosecutor.” Time, September 20, 2013.

4 Musto, David F. “When It Comes to Drugs, Beware the Censor’s Fix.” New York Times, June 28, 1987.

5 Alexander, Julia. “BoJack Horseman’s Addiction Gets a Rare Honest, Compassionate Look in Season 5.” Polygon, September 7, 2018.

6 Kurtzleben, Danielle. “Poll: Rural Americans Rattled by Opioid Epidemic: May Want Government Help.” NPR, October 17, 2018.

7 Tierney, Allison. “What Hollywood Often Ignores in Films About Drugs.” VICE, September 21, 2016.

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