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Jewish World Review May 2, 2000 /27 Nissan, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Hollywood battles addiction to addiction movies --
IT'S ABOUT TIME that Hollywood began to sober up and make some effort to come to terms with its own odd addiction to addiction movies.

Like other forms of obsession and dependency, this peculiar pattern of behavior qualifies as both irrational and self- destructive. The less-than-stellar box office returns for Sandra Bullock's heavily hyped new rehab comedy 28 Days represents just the latest evidence that the general public in no way shares the entertainment industry's feverish fascination with drugs, drunkenness and detox.

Filmmakers use the same basic setup for each of these moody melodramas -- in which some major star gets to play a glamorous but tormented loser, trapped in a nightmare of addiction or alcoholism, struggling to achieve a measure of sanity and control. In 1988, Michael Keaton went to a clinic to get Morgan Freeman's help in his efforts to become Clean and Sober; in 1994, Meg Ryan learned that a husband such as Andy Garcia will support even an appallingly alcoholic wife When a Man Loves a Woman; in 1998, Ben Stiller relied on the assistance of Elizabeth Hurley and Janeane Garofalo to avoid Permanent Midnight.

Despite big-name casts and positive reviews, none of these ambitious projects connected with ordinary film fans or achieved notable commercial success. Nevertheless, major production companies plan additional attempts to rehash the rehab process. Later this year, Sylvester Stallone stars in D-Tox, playing an alcoholic cop at a drying-out clinic in Wyoming where a serial killer has been knocking off patients. Already under development is Rachel's Holiday, based on a novel by Irish author Marian Keyes, about a lush and cocaine addict locked up in a rehabilitation center near Dublin.

No sane (or sober) individual could reasonably expect such painful projects to clean up at the box office. How many teenagers can you imagine saying to one another in a high school lunchroom: "Hey, come on, Tiffany! Let's go out together this Friday to watch Sandra Bullock struggle to kick a booze and pills habit! We'll have a blast!" Even when addiction movies try to employ irreverent humor (as 28 Days does, with some success) the underlying tone remains solemn, offering ordinary moviegoers an ordeal, rather than entertainment.

It's precisely the serious, self-important edge that makes such meaty material all but irresistible to prominent performers, particularly those -- such as Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan or Ben Stiller -- who have become famous through frothy, light-hearted diversions. Rehab roles give likable lightweights the chance to show unexpected depth and range and to gain what every actor secretly craves most: serious regard from peers and public. After all, Nicholas Cage won the Oscar for playing a single-mindedly suicidal drunk in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) -- another project with spectacularly positive reviews but only limited audience appeal.

The willingness of top producers to keep revisiting the same failed formula despite a dismal commercial track record demonstrates that Hollywood occasionally will make decisions with no regard to public preferences or popular demand. This is particularly true when scripts manage to connect with the personal experiences of leaders in the movie colony. No, not everyone in show business is an addict or an alcoholic, but everyone in the industry knows somebody who is. Recent headlines about Robert Downey Jr. and Charlie Sheen (or Whitney Houston?) represent especially pathetic examples. One of the funniest lines in the satirical film The Player (1992) suggests that ambitious entertainment executives now attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings not for the uplift, but for crucial contacts.

Twelve Step programs and radical-rehabilitation regimens may prove hot topics of conversation at Beverly Hills dinner parties, but they command far less attention at blue-collar barbecues in flyover country. Even though waitresses and truck drivers may battle addiction with the same desperate determination as screenwriters, there's no evidence that they wish to relive those struggles by paying good money to watch big-screen versions of their experiences. Whether you're in denial or in detox, most turbulent, addictive personalities might well prefer playfulness to preachiness -- entertaining escapes to meaningful messages.

Furthermore, authentic veterans of most rehab and renewal programs will note one glaring omission in Hollywood's approach to the process. That missing factor is G-d -- since AA's Twelve Steps and other conspicuously successful programs for the treatment of addiction make a point of emphasizing the importance of acknowledging our own helplessness and calling upon a Higher Power.

In addiction and redemption movies, however, present-day producers display their usual blind spot when it comes to religion; it is always true love or some caring counselor, rather than deepening faith or spiritual transformation or supernatural assistance, that rescues the protagonist from personal demons.

Perhaps a similar leap of faith might help Hollywood readjust its pattern of producing self-indulgent addiction epics, but it will take more than 28 Days to break the habit. Until then, we can expect additional releases that put us through the rehab ringer, with more of the same pathetically predictable box office results.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


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10/06/99: Hollywood again makes drug use seem hip
08/25/99: NAACP attacks the wrong TV target
08/16/99: Government declares we're in a post-marriage age?

© 2000, Michael Medved