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Hollywood on Drugs

Still from “Ben is Back.”

Given the enormity of the drug crisis in the USA, particularly centered on opioid overdoses that are the largest cause of death of people under the age of 50, it was inevitable that Hollywood would begin to produce “problem” movies such as “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”. It also just as inevitable that such films would be based on the suffering of well-to-do families and suffused with clichés.

“Ben is Back” stars Julia Roberts as Holly Burns, the matriarch of a generally happy family eagerly awaiting Christmas day, the happiest time of the year, especially if you live in the suburbs and have lots of money to lavish on presents. Pulling into her driveway with a carload of gifts to place under the Christmas tree, she sees the ghost of Christmas past, namely her college-aged son Ben (Lucas Hedges) who has cut short his stay in a drug rehabilitation facility to return home from the holidays.

The entire family treats Ben as if he was the scariest ghost showing up in Scrooge’s bedroom. He is there not to remind them of their lifetime of sins but the pain he has visited on them in the past as an opioid addict. Hoping to enjoy a happy time with the family, he is put on the defensive by his mom’s insistence that he take a drug test in the upstairs bathroom right off the bat. As he pees into a bottle, she stands behind him with her arms folded to make sure he is not turning in a fake sample.

While the family holds him at arm’s length, a mother’s love naturally makes Holly susceptible to her son’s charms. Bit by bit, she tries to convince her other kids and her husband that maybe his AWOL trip back home was a sign that he was trying to return to a normal life. As it happens, everything conspires to make them wish he would just go away. When they are in church, someone busts into the house and not only steals all the Christmas presents but their beloved pet dog Ponce.

The remainder of the film consists of Holly and Ben trying to regain the stolen goods, especially Ponce, in a series of fraught confrontations with the town’s drug dealers who all have it in for Ben for one transgression or another. Since their voyage takes place at night, the film aspires to a noir quality that is in sharp distinction to the film’s true calling, which is to make the kind of film the Lifetime Cable channel specializes in, the “problem” drama that generally has a female lead.

“Ben is Back” was written and directed by Peter Hedges, whose son Lucas plays Ben. This is the second film in a row featuring Lucas Hedges as a tormented youth. In “Boy Erased”, he was much more convincing as a gay teen forced to undergo conversion therapy. Of course, it helped that the script for “Boy Erased” was devoid of the maudlin and faux noirelements of the more recent one.

Like “Ben is Back”, “Beautiful Boy” is about a teenage drug addict, in this instance a real boy named Nick Sheff who is the son of David Sheff, a highly successful journalist who has written for the NY Times, Rolling Stone and other prestigious magazines.

The plot of “Beautiful Boy” is practically identical to “Ben is Back” but based this time on addiction to crystal meth. Playing the doting father, Steve Carrell is as off-putting as ever using his characteristic acting mannerisms, which consist mainly of putting a “rest” between each word. Instead of “Nick, I am your father”, we hear “Nick….I….am….your….father”, always with the beagle-like expression on his face that is another mannerism.

Like all films dealing with addiction going back to “A Hatful of Rain” and “The Man with a Golden Arm” of my youth, the narrative arc is predictable. A loving husband, wife, father or mother sacrifices everything to save a child or mate. It is not worth a spoiler alert but the two films under consideration here have a conventionally happy ending.

What makes the films so annoying in the final analysis is their cloistered location in middle-class family life in which addiction enters as a deus ex machina. In Ben’s case, everything was fine until a doctor overprescribed painkillers for a sports injury. For Chris, it is a bit more interesting since he got into drugs like many young people from affluent families do today as an escape from the suffocation of middle-class life. That Chris’s favorite writer from an early age was Charles Bukowski (he recites “Let if Enfold You” to a college literature class) speaks volumes. Except for the final line of the poem, it is the best part of the film:

I changed jobs and
cities, I hated holidays,
babies, history,
newspapers, museums,
grandmothers,
marriage, movies,
spiders, garbagemen,
english accents, spain,
france, italy, walnuts and
the color
orange.
algebra angered me,
opera sickened me,
charlie chaplin was a
fake
and flowers were for
pansies.

In reality, the average drug addict in the USA has little in common with Ben Burns or Nick Sheff, especially when it comes to opioids and crystal meth. These are the drugs of choice for the chronically unemployed or underemployed people of places like West Virginia, New Hampshire and even the once prosperous Borscht Belt of upstate New York. A few years ago, I was startled to discover that the house just a few blocks from mine on a pleasant country road was dealing heroin. And more recently, I read in the local newspaper that the kid who I hired as a handyman to get my mother’s house ready for sale was jailed for his latest drug violation.

The dirty little secret is that most people take drugs not because they were overprescribed for a Lacrosse injury but because it helps relieve the boredom and misery of unemployment. Furthermore, if you want to relieve the suffering if you live in such an area, your best bet is to deal heroin, opioids, or crystal meth. These are booming industries, after all, unlike coal-mining.

In a paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Macroeconomic Conditions and Opioid Abuse” (a correlation between unemployment, poverty and opioid abuse is made. “As the county unemployment rate increases by one percentage point, the opioid death rate per 100,000 rises by 0.19 (3.6%) and the opioid overdose ED visit rate per 100,000 increases by 0.95 (7.0%).”

Would Hollywood make a film about a West Virginia family suffering the consequences of opioid addiction? Judging by the junk that was honored by the latest Academy Awards event, it is highly doubtful. About the closest it came was Gus Van Sant’s 1989 “Drugstore Cowboy” that was based on a novel by James Fogle, a career criminal with a sixth grade education. In a bit part, William S. Burroughs plays a junkie priest, something that makes this terrific film worth its $2.99 price on Youtube.

If heroin, opioids and crystal meth have helped to foster a cottage industry of small proprietors, the much bigger impact has been on capitalist enterprises operating within the law. An eye-opening documentary titled “American Relapse” that opens at the Cinema Village in NY and at the Monica Film Center in LA on March 29th, with VOD to follow on April 2nd, reveals the “rehabilitation” industry at work in Delray Beach, Florida, the epicenter of the nation’s heroin addiction/treatment center. You learn from the film that there is megabucks to be made for detox and rehabilitation clinics that are to the heroin addiction world that nursing homes are to the elderly—nothing but warehouses. Making up to $10,000 per month per resident taking care of junkies and dementia patients is big business, after all. Stephen Schwarzman’s Blackstone made a bundle cornering the nursing home business in England so it would not be surprising to see him dive headlong into the detox/rehabilitation business.

The film depicts a couple of “junkie hunters” at work in Delray Beach, both ex-addicts themselves. Frankie is a heavily tattooed man in his thirties who has been using heroin since he was 14 years old. Now, supposedly clean, he drives around Delray Beach looking for addicts to get into treatment. So does Allie, another ex-junkie, who is his female counterpart.

We learn from them that they are not in it just for the money (they get a bounty in effect for bringing an addict in for treatment). They also look after people without any insurance, not even Obamacare, because they know what it is like to live life on the margins. Frankie is seen looking after a man named Conor who looks like death warmed over. Without insurance, and just as importantly without any real chance at true rehabilitation, Conor is not the ideal prospect for a “junkie hunter”. We feel for him and feel for Frankie who understands what it means to be a loser. The film ends with the Conor’s funeral and the discovery that Frankie has been using heroin during the filming of “American Relapse”, something he kept secret from the directors.

Everybody wins in the drug business except people like Conor. The prison industry makes big bucks from housing inmates, 45 percent of whom are behind bars for drug offenses. The “treatment” industry makes out because junkies come in and out of their facilities like through a revolving door. The cost of keeping prisons and treatment centers is footed by the taxpayers and like any other such capitalist scam benefits those at the top.

The answer to the drug problem is the same as it was for the alcohol problem, a substance as deadly as any opioid. If marijuana is soon to become legal in the USA, it will join beer and whiskey as an acceptable “recreational” drug. It would take a massive shift in values in the USA for cocaine and opiates to get the same status but it is not hard to imagine that becoming possible if we become like European social democracies that have always had a more enlightened policy. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that outcome giving our lurching backward into the Dark Ages at breakneck speed.