Bad Drug Movies We Love

By Joe Lynch 07/01/11

From Requiem, Trainspotting and Scarface to Drugstore Cowboy, Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, we all know the great films featuring drug abuse. That’s why we came up with a list of the less-than-greats that still hold a place in our hearts.

Gia (1998)

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Faye Dunaway

What it’s about: The true-life story of fashion model Gia Carangi (Angelina Jolie), Gia tracks her sudden fame as a teenage model in New York and how the fashion world, the death of her agent and her struggle with her bisexuality, combined with her addiction to cocaine and heroin, led to an HIV-infected needle and death at age 26.  

Level of realism: Although this movie is made for TV, it was made for HBO—so it doesn’t shy away from showing the unglamorous side of Carangi as she scours the gritty alleys of New York desperate for a fix. And the pre-fame Jolie (who won a Golden Globe for the role) goes all out, delivering a tour-de-force performance with everything she’s got (just try getting the scene where she flings herself against the fence during a photo shoot out of your head). Then again, the fake-documentary interviews and nude lesbian scene between Jolie and Mitchell (with its sultry saxophone and slow-motion shots) are pure cheese.

Why we love it: Even if it is a bit made-for-TV dramatic at times, Jolie’s performance brings Carangi’s authenticity to life and it paints a realistic portrait of the dangers of drug abuse that exists.

Where the Day Takes You (1992)

Starring: Dermot Mulroney, Sean Astin, Will Smith, Ricki Lake, Lara Flynn Boyle, Kyle MacLachlan, Balthazar Getty

What it’s about: Hard drugs, prostitution, panhandling, back-alley violence... basically the city of Los Angeles, as seen through the eyes of cast-off teens. 

Level of Realism: The scenes where the troubled Little J (a scrawny Balthazar Getty) shacks up with an older man (Stephen Tobolowsky) he once had sex with for money are sad and convincing. Incidentally, Tobolowsky currently plays a teacher ejected for inappropriate behavior on Glee—what is it about this guy’s face that says “pervert” to casting directors?

Why we love it: It’s a movie about teens who are cast away by society and forced to lean on each other and their wits to survive on the streets. Never has homelessness seemed so sexy. Any movie that makes sex on a used mattress under an L.A. bridge seem appealing—versus nasty and disease-ridden—deserves due credit. Especially fun is a cast which includes a post-Goonies, pre-Hobbit Sean Astin, Will Smith winning a race in a wheelchair, Lara Flynn Boyle before she seemed loony tunes, Ricki Lake before she was a talk show host and Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan as a fatherly heroin dealer.

American Psycho (2000)

Starring Christian Bale, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Justin Theroux

What it’s about: A schizophrenic satire of so many things wrong with the 80s—ubiquitous street drugs, materialistic competition, soulless rock music and heartless Wall Street sharks (some themes are just timeless). 

Level of Realism: A Wall Street-er as a murderer isn’t exactly wholly realistic but the way it takes you into the insane, pitiless mind of Bale’s Patrick Bateman is wholly real in a delusional sort of way. 

Why we love it: Satirizing drug use isn’t easy but the scene where Theroux and Bale bicker over the potency of their cocaine in a bathroom stall only to be interrupted by the guy next to them shouting, “Would you keep it down? I’m trying to do drugs!” is a priceless example of Reagan-era self-centered cluelessness.  

The Boost (1988)

Starring: James Woods, Sean Young

What it’s about: A couple who has it all gets into cocaine and loses everything—including each other. 

Level of Realism: It goes for gritty but overshoots the mark—by a mile. Still, if you consider those reenactments on Rescue 911 startling, you might buy this. 

Why we love it: Although a well-meaning drama, a lot of the soul-spilling dialogue and over-the-top acting veers well into camp territory. James Woods, bless his heart, gives this role so much energy. But when he begins convulsing and his eyes roll back into his head after overdosing, he’s more Linda Blair than Requiem for a Dream. Especially when his acting stands next to the typically unemotional Sean Young (who, after this movie, supposedly stalked him), he looks like a comparative lunatic. 

Go (1999)

Starring: Katie Holmes, Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Polley

What it’s about: Disgruntled supermarket clerks do whippets on the job until they can get ecstasy and hit the LA clubs at night. With its interrelated but loosely connected narrative, Go is like a less ambitious (but just as fun) Pulp Fiction

Level of Realism: Although it occasionally seems like it’s glorifying the cheap thrills of ecstasy, the movie’s kinetic camerawork and pounding electronic soundtrack do a great job of relaying the frightening sensory overload of a bad trip. And the scene where one of the characters is convinced a cat is talking to him manages to be authentic, original, and laugh-out-loud hysterical.

Why we love it: The main character Ronna (Polley), a sort of Gen-X mouthpiece, is sometimes too quick on her feet and biting to be believable, but that’s part of the charm (call her a flesh-and-blood Daria). Also, Katie Holmes shouting down two men with a gun and talking them into shooting her Brit twit friend in the arm instead of in the head is probably her best acting moment to date.

Valley of the Dolls (1967)

Starring: Barbara Parkins (green pills) Patty Duke (red pills) Sharon Tate (blue pills)

What it’s about: Three starry-eyed girls taste fame in New York, but pressure to stay on top drives them toward the titular dolls (pills), booze and bad men—which eventually spells their downfall. 

Level of Realism: This type of story was already clichéd back in 1967, so even contemporary critics weren’t buying it as a morality tale. The level of camp is as high as the pompadours: tantrums are thrown, people slur their way through dialogue and a wig is tossed into a toilet. And Patty Duke says things like, “Boobies, boobies, boobies. Who needs 'em? I never had any.”

Why we love it: Although there were earlier (and more exploitative) films about the dangers of drugs, this is the one that showed Hollywood these movies could make a lot of money. And it even inspired an immediate and also-classic parody, the campy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970. 

Desperate Lives (1982)

Starring: Diana Scarwid, Helen Hunt

What it’s about: An after school made-for-TV movie about a guidance counselor fighting against the rampant drug use that appears out of nowhere in her high school. 

Level of Realism: Well, if “after school made-for-TV movie” didn’t tip you off, it’s not very believable. Call it the Reefer Madness of the ’80s. 

Why we love it: After taking her first snort of PCP from peer pressure, a shrieking Helen Hunt leaps out of her high school’s second-story window. It shouldn’t be funny, but it’s done so abruptly that you can’t help but laugh. Still able to stand up, she starts staggering around and cutting herself on broken glass. Hey, even Oscar winners have to start somewhere. 

New Jack City (1991)

Starring: Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Judd Nelson, Chris Rock

What it’s about: Two New York cops (the once-in-a-lifetime crime-fighting duo Ice-T and Judd Nelson) try to take down brutal Harlem drug lord Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) who holes up in a seemingly impregnable abandoned apartment complex.

Level of Realism: Impressively believable for the most part. Unlike Scarface (which it undoubtedly borrows from), it rarely feels like it’s accidentally glorifying the drug lifestyle.

Why we love it: Snipes famously chews out his henchmen and tells one of them “Sit yo five dollar ass back down before I make change!” Although Martin Lawrence later parodied it on his TV show, it’s funny (and scary) enough to enjoy on its own. And the crying scenes with Chris Rock as a junkie shows all too clearly what a good choice he made when he switched from drama to comedy. 

Blow (2011)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ray Liotta

What it’s about: Another entry in the “rise-and-fall of a drug lord” film genre, Blow focuses on the real-life story of George Jung (Depp), who organized cocaine trafficking in the U.S. during the Disco Era.

Level of realism: At times it seems like a fairly honest view of the self-centered, greedy Jung, but the questionable ending seems to invite us to feel sorry for the man who helped flood America with cocaine. Ahem—um, no. 

Why we love it: Half the fun is seeing the fashion evolution of Depp. Early in the movie, he has a blonde Monkees-styled cut. By the time he meets Cruz for their bizarre S&M montage, he looks like Fabio. And by the end of the movie, it looks like you could lift that grungy Rod Stewart wig off of his head with your pinkie.

54 (1998)

Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Neve Campbell, Salma Hayek, Mike Myers

What it’s about: How Steve Rubell (Mike Myers, in a rare acting role) created the legendary Studio 54, New York’s “center-of-the-universe” club during the Disco Era. 

Level of realism: Not a ton. Much of the drug use here is incidental: it comes and goes without exploring what it actually does. Characters do pills and cocaine but no one (aside from a very elderly woman clubber) seems to pay the price. At least until the IRS comes. So apparently you can escape addiction easier than the government?

Why we love it: It comes across as a cheesier Boogie Nights. With all the gratuitous sex and shirtless male “customer service” at the club, the movie seems more interested in titillation than substance. Perhaps in that way, it’s a perfect summary of Studio 54?

Joe Lynch grew up in Saint Paul, MN, and is now yet another writer living in Brooklyn. You can find his writing in Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo TV and New York Magazine's Vulture. He previously wrote about Intervention for The Fix.

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Joe Lynch is a freelance journalist and the Senior Editor at Billboard. You can find his writing in Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo TV and New York Magazine's Vulture. He previously wrote about Intervention for The Fix. You can find Joe on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.