Last year at the Oscars was in some ways the Year of the Addict, with Best Picture nods for the boxing film The Fighter, in which an emaciated Christian Bale plays washed-up crackhead welterweight champion Dicky Eklund; the Ozark Mountains methland horrorshow Winter’s Bone; and The Kids Are All Right, which touched on the overdrinking of one half of a pair of harried lesbian moms. While all three were denied the top prize, Bale did take home the Best Supporting Actor statuette. This year, though—not so much. The nine Best Picture nominees for the 2012 Oscars have nary a drink, drug or addiction between them, despite the presence, this year, of arguably Oscar-worthy films such as Young Adult, in which Charlize Theron plays an antisocial, boozy kid-lit author, and Shame, which follows Michael Fassbender down the dark rabbit hole of sexual compulsion. Thus, as a corrective to these snubs, The Fix presents its list of the top 10 depictions of 12-step meetings in film. And the nominees are ...
For those who love to hate Anne Hathaway, this is probably the role they feel she was born to play: that of Kym, an insufferable recovering ex-model addict, in 2008’s knockout of a picture, Rachel Getting Married. This is, for The Fix's money, one of the best portrayals of the quotidian face of addiction and wishy-washy recovery out there, which in reality is a lot less like Requiem for a Dream than the movies would have you believe. Kym is annoying, self-centered, endlessly self-justifying—and brilliantly real and true to life. Just 10 minutes into the film, we see Kym, fresh from rehab and running late, crash her way into an NA meeting, knocking over metal folding chairs and shouting “Cocksucker!” The guy who’s introducing himself at the moment Kym makes her entrance makes a self-deprecating joke out of her epithet, and the room cracks up—showing an integral part of 12-Step meetings (i.e., laughter) that’s rarely seen on the big (or small) screen.
Vera Farmiga channels her inner Fiona Apple in this 2004 film, in which she plays Irene, a hard-luck supermarket cashier and mom of two with a secret cocaine habit. The movie, which is dressed in the sad Midwestern lived-in-ness of A&E’s Intervention, opens on Halloween, as we see Irene sweetly (if hurriedly) fixing her kids’ costumes before blowing lines alone in the bathroom—in a witch costume. Suffice it to say that things go downhill from there. The NA scenes in the movie feel true to life, depicting a decidedly non-glamorous collection of recovering addicts dutifully feeding Folgers into busted-up industrial coffee urns and touchingly setting out cookies one by one. A meeting chairperson even reads an NA “script” to open the meeting, which will sound familiar to anyone who’s done time in the rooms.
This one falls squarely into the unrealistic category. That said, one hallmark of 12-Step meetings which movies typically fail to capture is that they can actually be pretty bonkos. And the example in 1998’s Half-Baked is no exception. The basic story is this: Dave Chappelle’s weed-addicted janitor (excuse me: “master of the custodial arts”) has to get off the sticky-icky for his girlfriend, the ironically named, teetotaling Mary Jane. But he finds that sobriety is making him irritable, and so he decides to check out a meeting. As Thurgood is sharing about the diabolical claws in which pot has snared him, the meeting revolts: Bob Saget pops up, out of nowhere, and declaims, “Marijuana is not a drug. I used to suck dick for coke.” (“I seen him!”) “Now that’s an addiction, man. You ever suck some dick for marijuana?” Booed off the stage, Thurgood soon falls back into his pot-smoking ways.
Freshly sprung from the joint, Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal) checks into a halfway house with her rumpled paper sack of possessions, including an incongruous (at least for 2006, when the film was released) Walkman. Meeting-wise, SherryBaby falls into the trap that a lot of recovery movies do, which is to make the meeting into an excuse for an extended soliloquy by the main character. Whereas most folks in a meeting, when asked if there’s anyone new, will simply say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic,” and sit back down—not here: Instead Gyllenhaal gives us a capsule history of how, “from the age of 16 to 22, heroin was the love of my life.” OK, sure. But the meeting itself seems raggedly authentic, and wins points for an AA preamble read by co-chair Gene, played by none other than San Quentin gangster nonpareil—and real-life recovering addict—Danny Trejo, in a hot-orange sleeveless jean jacket.
Blink and you’ll miss it, but the brief Boston AA meeting scene in 2010’s bang-up heist movie The Town is one of the better ones in recent memory, for a seemingly counterintuitive reason: Not a whole hell of a lot is made of it. It’s just something that Ben Affleck’s bankrobbing Irish-American tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold character Doug MacRay happens to do (just like a lot of people with long-term sobriety)—and apparently on a regular basis, given the tumbling snippets of meeting dialogue that we hear over MacRay’s early-morning workout. Next we see Affleck walking pensively into the meeting, where an ex-drunk with an awesome Bah-stun accent is telling one of the classic parables (in this case, of the god-works-through-other-human-beings variety) that you’ll occasionally hear from old-timer AA “crocodiles.” Kudos to Affleck, who also directed, for keeping it low-key.
This one is short, but good: In the 2007 feature-length film of Matt Groening’s ongoing magnum opus, the evil EPA boss quarantines Springfield by trapping the whole toxic town under a gigantic, impenetrable glass dome. At first, the yellow, four-fingered locals gamely make the best of a bad situation (“Dome Sweet Dome,” reads a needlepoint project of Marge’s). But when the local book club breaks down after one too many re-readings of Tuesdays With Morrie, Helen Lovejoy snaps and chucks her copy of the book out the window—whereupon it promptly flies into an AA meeting and knocks over the coffee urns, causing perpetual drunk Barney Gumble to freak out, sparking a get-me-outta-here dome-destruction riot. And, scene.
The Sopranos may have done it first (poor Christopher), but the dramedy You Kill Me (2007) does it just as well, if not better—namely, depict a stone-cold killer getting sober. Frank, played by Ben Kingsley, is a vodka-guzzling member of a Buffalo-based crime syndicate. When Frank screws up yet another job, his familia doesn't do him like the Corleones did Fredo; rather, they stage an intervention and sentence him to dry out in San Francisco. Not long after Frank hits the Left Coast, he gets tricked into attending his first AA meeting. These early scenes are best: The cold-blooded hitman jumps every time the crowd does the “Hi, I’m X, and I’m an alcoholic”/“Hi, X!” thing, and responds with a terse “I’m not” when Luke Wilson (who later becomes Frank's sponsor) introduces himself to Frank and extols the virtues of the program, including the practical observation that “it’s a great place to meet guys.”
Although the Sandra Bullock vehicle 28 Days (2000) suffers from some of the clichéd detritus that often afflicts recovery cinema, it remains one of the most in-depth and good-humored rehab movies out there. Bullock plays Gwen, a newspaper columnist who gets drunk and ruins her sister’s wedding by crashing a limousine into a house, which precipitates her getting packed off—in order to dodge jail time—to a relatively low-rent rehab. The meetings in the film are big and diverse, and one even features a honest-to-goodness qualification by none other than Steve Buscemi. Unfortunately, Buscemi isn’t playing his usual who’s-the-weirdest-of-them-all role (his character is a counselor at the rehab), but his extended “drunkalogue”—much of delivered in voiceover, as we watch Bullock try to jump out a window without killing herself in order to retrieve some pills—is not half-bad, as qualifications go.
Can you think of anyone more suited to play a coke-addled hotshot real-estate agent than the manic Michael Keaton? Neither could the producers of 1988’s Clean and Sober, who cast Keaton in the role of Daryl Poynter, who finds one morning that the girl he’d been up all night “partying” with has had a heart attack and died. In an attempt to lay low, Daryl checks himself into a gritty 30-day detox. Meeting-wise, Clean and Sober features an awesome story from the man who becomes Daryl’s sponsor, who relates how his bottom involved trying to literally hammer his broken nose back into place. Towards the end, a visibly improved Keaton qualifies in front of a packed house, barely visible through a thick blue fog of cigarette smoke. “It’s 30 days later, and I’ve been to a funeral, I’ve been to about nine million job interviews, I’m $52,000 in debt,” Keaton says. “And I got this chip ... and I got this startling belief that I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict.”
Director Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) is one of those sprawlingly ambitious, everything-is-connected drug-war movies—and so 12-Step meetings aren’t given as much airtime as in other films that are focused more on the individual. Nevertheless, Traffic gets high points for its poignant, tentatively hopeful meeting scene that ends the movie. Driving home AA’s one-day-at-a-time philosophy, the newly sober US drug-czar daughter Caroline Wakefield (a fresh-faced Erika Christensen) explains from the podium how, “On the good days, I feel like I get it—like it all makes sense. I can stay in the moment; I don’t have to control everything in the future. And I believe everything is going to work out fine.”
Hunter R. Slaton is the Rehab Review Editor for The Fix. He has written for publications including Men's Journal, Budget Travel, Valet, Blender, Time Out New York, and more.