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Hollywood Has a New Way to Dramatize Addiction

Hollywood still needs to reduce a complex illness into something like a sports movie or boxing match.

But a Hollywood movie cannot just be about boredom. It requires a meaty emotional conflict, preferably one that can be resolved in a couple of hours. Deb, for instance, says she blames doctors who overprescribed painkillers for Molly’s addiction, but the audience later learns that she left her family and that Molly grew up in a volatile, loveless home. A daughter’s feeling abandoned by her mother, the mother’s blaming herself for her child’s addiction — here is something we can chew on.

The demands of mass-market Hollywood dramas seem almost engineered to prevent honest portrayals of addiction. The films now conceive of it as a medical illness instead of a moral failing, which is positive. But Hollywood still needs to reduce a complex illness into something like a sports movie or boxing match. Molly either wins or loses, gets high or not. Her illness must ultimately be conquered by valiant displays of will. She must survive a cold-turkey withdrawal while her mother, whom she has burned one too many times, musters her last ounces of support and compassion.

The harrowing withdrawal, with its days of hellish sweats, is the most obvious aspect of addiction to dramatize: a trial of grit from which the character emerges transformed. Perhaps this is why naltrexone seems to be a favorite among some of America’s drug-court judges, who may view withdrawal as its own form of redemptive punishment. Maintenance treatments are arguably more effective and don’t require patients to be sick for a week, but they do not follow the dramatic path in which a character must reach a gripping, life-altering crisis point.

Addiction, however, does not follow defined dramatic arcs. For some, treating it is a repetitive, yearslong process of trial and error. For others, it’s even more anticlimactic, and therapy and medication do the trick. Yes, some do recover after a cathartic breakthrough. But those stories tend not to bring viewers closer to addiction; if anything, they create distance, reducing tangles of human desire into melodrama and pity. You come away thinking, At least I’m not like that.

In stories about “Four Good Days,” critics have marveled at how Kunis is “unrecognizable” in her “transformation” into what Hollywood thinks a heroin user looks like. Molly is gaunt, with rotting teeth and scabs dotting her face — a severe case. The film implies that this is her make-or-break shot at recovery, that it all comes down to this one moment. You’re unlikely to see less sensational arcs in today’s Hollywood dramas: say, people who make their progress slowly, who falter, who benefit from harm reduction, who learn that recovery is about more than their own will to endure suffering, whose addiction isn’t even their biggest problem in life. Such stories could surely be interesting ones. But in order to tell them, Hollywood would need to kick a very old habit.

Source photographs: Screen grabs from YouTube

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