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Addiction and Recovery: Five Great Movies You’ve Gotta See

In this space we recently wrote about Denzel Washington’s turn in Flight, a 2012 movie about an airline pilot who desperately needs help in an alcohol treatment center. While many people raved about the movie’s realistic portrayal of a man’s seemingly impossible mission to move toward sobriety, others criticized it because its climax hung on a basic point of character rather than the process of accessing  recovery. If you’re curious about movies that serve up screen time about the vagaries of recovery, why not hunt down one or more of these great movies:

Clean and Sober (1988, starring Michael Keaton, Kathy Baker, and Morgan Freeman). This film opens with Keaton’s wheeling-and-dealing real estate agent Darryl waking up from a night spent partying; the woman he snorted cocaine with lies dead beside him. While he tries to convince the police that no drugs were involved in her death, he’s also evading questions from work about where a huge sum of money went—yes, he embezzled it—and he decides the safest place to be is in a drug and alcohol treatment center. There he meets a few addicts in recovery, including a fragile young lady (Baker) and a crusty drug counselor (Freeman).

28 Days (2000, starring Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen, and Steve Buscemi). This failed to score at the box office like Bullock’s other hits, earning only $62 million internationally overall, but it has been played in many a rehab center. Bullock portrays Gwen, an alcoholic journalist who wrecks a car after her sister’s wedding and chooses 28 days in a rehab center over jail time. She enters rehab certain that she’s just cooling her heels—that she is certainly not anybody who really has an alcohol problem—but the other residents, including a former baseball star (Mortensen) with multiple addictions and a teenage girl struggling with her craving for heroin give her a wake-up call.

Days of Wine and Roses (1962, starring Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, and Jack Klugman). Lemmon plays a public relations man who charms an innocent secretary and turns her on to the fun of drinking. After all, if someone likes to drink, he’s likely to hang out with other people who like to drink also, right? The problem is that drinking becomes the third person in their relationship. As the drinking worsens, Lemmon’s character gets fired and does a couple stints in a sanitarium—the place where alcoholics used to go before alcoholism came to be recognized as a behavioral health disorder at clinically established alcohol treatment centers. Only one of them remains sober at the movie’s end.

House of Sand and Fog (2003, starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley). Kathy Nicolo (Connelly) is a woman struggling with recovery and abandoned by her husband who fails to take the action necessary to save her house from a tax sale. An Iranian immigrant (Kingsley) buys the house, and Kathy spends all her energy insisting that the house is still hers. This movie is not overtly about addiction, but if you’re seeking recovery—or you know someone who is—you’ll recognize the obsessive, selfish behavior demonstrated by Kathy that ultimately destroys the people around her.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995, starring Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue). Cage portrays Ben Sanderson, a jobless Hollywood screenwriter who decides to go to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. There he meets Shue’s character, a hapless prostitute who enters into a bizarre relationship with Sanderson. This film netted Cage an Academy Award and was adapted from a book written by John O’Brien, an alcoholic screenwriter and novelist. Many people believed it was semi-autobiographical, and he shot himself two weeks after learning that it was being filmed.

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