11 Movies to Sober You Up
Unlike The Hangover franchise that has graced our screens since 2009, and any of the drunken ragtag college comedies such as Porkies (1982), Beerfest (2006) and Superbad (2007) there is a small collection of American films concerning drinking that may make you want to check straight into the Betty Ford Clinic after watching them.
Smashed (2012), fronted by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Hannah and Aaron Paul (remember him from Breaking Bad?) as Charlie Hannah, deals with the problem of alcoholism in a very realistic and poignant way. Kate Hannah endears herself to the audience as she struggles through the issues that her alcoholism has presented to her, up to and including faking pregnancy at her elementary school job to cover up a drunken vomit. One particularly moving scene is Kate’s first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where she asks, and in a way, answers the question what it is to be an alcoholic and when one might realise it.
Kate Hannah’s AA Speech
Drunks (1995) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995) deal with alcoholism in a more confronting style. Drunks follows the one night relapse of Jim (Richard Lewis) after he walks out on an A.A meeting. The film switches back and forth between Jim’s downward spiral and the progression of the meeting. Each member of the A.A meeting recounts their lowest point, why they started coming to meetings and why they try to keep sober. The variety of characters affected by their drinking is overwhelming, from those who refuse to call themselves alcoholics to one particular character who nearly caused the death of his child. Leaving Las Vegas approaches alcoholism entirely differently, Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) has given himself three months to drink himself to death. Already victim to nearly fatalistic delirium tremors, we watch Ben “medicate” himself with straight vodka in the shower. He consumes so much liquid throughout the film it is nauseating to watch. As a spectator, you chuckle at his tipsy faux pas, cringe through his drunken rages and cry as you watch him fade away.
What is common about these films is that the protagonists are in their thirties or older, well past the drunken carousing their college years may have provided them. It is strange that alcohol addiction (not so much drug addiction) is typecast in films as being an older adult problem. They do deal with a confronting issue with honesty and without the flippancy of Arthur (1981) but don’t pull any punches either.
In addition to these films are the following alcoholism themed films in chronological order:
11. The Lost Weekend
This film follows the drinking bout of an alcoholic over a period of four days. New York writer Don Birnam has been sober for ten days but but in desperation swindles his house keeper out of her paycheck to begin his four day bender. The film deals with how alcohol affects interpersonal relationships, how far a desperate drunk will go for a drink and how Don can consolidate ‘Don the writer’ and ‘Don the drunk’. It is a pretty grim and realistic look at alcoholism and still manages to hold power over its audiences sixty-eight years later. This was a breakthrough role for Ray Milland, star of the film who in preparation for his role spent a couple of nights in an alcoholic ward. In 2011, The Lost Weekend was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
10. Days of Wine and Roses
A man falls in love with and marries a young girl who he then proceeds to systematically coax in alcoholism so that she too can share his “passion” for a drink. Their love for alcohol goes too far and husband Joe checks into a sanitarium after destroying his father in law’s greenhouse plants. The relationship falls apart during the separation and while Joe stays sober, Kristen keeps drinking. This is classic cautionary tale about the dangers of drinking. Blake Edwards utilises black and white film stock to its full extent in this dramatic and powerful film. Days of Wine and Roses received four Oscar nominations and an Academy aware for the film’s theme music. Both Jack Lemmon (Joe) and the director, Blake Edwards were alcoholics and drank heavily throughout the making of the film but after the film’s completion both began Alcoholics Anonymous.
This film features Mickey Rourke drinking A LOT of whisky. The film follows the story of Henry Chinaski, a destitute alcoholic who works menial jobs and expresses himself through his poetry. Henry becomes entangled with fellow alcoholic and kept woman Wanda and romantically involved with the wealthy publisher Tully as well. Henry must decide whether to move up in the world or stick to the grubby, boozey bar he knows best. The camera work in this film captures the typical bar scene in this romantic comedy.
The film was based on the time that Charles Bukowski spent drinking in Los Angeles. Bukowski was disappointed by Rourke’s performance in the lead role, claiming that Rourke exaggerated the part and over-acted, making the story seem less true. Rourke’s acting as Chinaski does have its charms, in particular is his husky drawling voice, reminiscent of the Beat poets.
Follows the relapse of Jim after his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. A gritty film that uncovers some of the darkest personal and shameful moments that the characters have to offer. Each individual story that the members of the Alcoholic Anonymous meeting shares varies in severity, even some of the characters scoffing at one another for not being a “real” alcoholic and just coming along for the attention. The stories are cut in with scenes of Jim’s downward spiral, from that first drink to the one that leaves him in foetal position.
The cinematography is not much to write home about and the film is quite stark in terms of soundtrack but the individual actors and scripts really stand out, staying with you long after the film has finished.
7. Leaving Las Vegas
This film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by John O’Brien. Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) is a Hollywood screenwriter who lost it all to his alcoholism. He travels to Las Vegas so that he may commit suicide by alcoholism. Not long after his arrival he meets a prostitute, Sera, played by Elizabeth Shue. They enter an agreement to ease their loneliness, Sera is not to stop him from killing himself and Ben cannot criticize Sera’s profession. The narrative is intercut with these displaced interviews with Sera, reflecting on her time with Ben. This does not seem to fit in the scheme of the whole film, which stands by itself quite strongly. Nicholas Cage reflects the unpredictable and varied signs of being a drunk with absolute skill. The gentle and self conscious relationship between two damaged souls in a city of sin should bring a tear to your eye by the end of this film.
6. 28 Days
A newspaper columnist (Sandra Bullock) is forced to check into a rehabilitation program after ruining her sister’s wedding. This film is not so much just about alcohol recovery as a journey to finding oneself as a sober individual rather than as a drunk.
The problem with adding a comedy element to a difficult subject is that the treatment of alcoholism can come off quite superficial and somewhat preachy. 28 Days has the glossy Hollywood veneer that is not entirely appropriate to this subject matter. Perhaps not using Hollywood’s classy girl next door Sandra Bullock as the lead character in 28 Days would have fixed this issue.
5. Walk the Line
The chronicle of the life of Johnny Cash including his drug and alcohol addiction. The main focus is upon Cash’s early life and romance with June Carter. It spends reasonable time on how Carter is affected by Cash’s addiction including writing ‘Ring of Fire’ to to describe her feelings towards Cash’s downward spiral. Witherspoon’s twangy, warm bubbly characterisation of June Carter makes her immediately likeable and even though we know how the story goes, we root for Carter to save Cash (which of course she does). Witherspoon’s acting in this role received numerous accolades including Academy Award for Best Actress. The onscreen passion between Phoenix and Witherspoon is off the charts whether they are loving each other or shouting at one another.
This film is based on Charles Bukowski’s novel of the same name (and on Charles himself) concerning alcoholic Hank Chinaski’s struggle to become a writer. This film, like others of Bukowski based work, is not so much concerned with the traditional story arc of ‘going somewhere’ but what it is that makes Chinaski happy. Ultimately, the audience finds that it is not relationships, career or respectability but his alcohol and his writing.
It is a sly and acidly funny film featuring Matt Dillon in some of his finest work since Drugstore Cowboy. A better adaptation of Bukowski’s work than Barfly but it is definitely work watching both for contrast and to measure the difference in the nuances of performance.
3. The Rum Diary
Follows an alcoholic freelance journalist through 1960’s expatriate Puerto Rico. Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is a failed novelist who is trying to find his voice as a writer. The film follows Kemp as he stumbles about Puerto Rico, finding himself in obscure situations and falling in love with the impossible Chenault (Amber Heard). Depp’s characterisation is much like that in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (stronger in drugs than alcohol otherwise it would be on this list) and makes the film watchable for that reason. Without Depp, the narrative is a ragtag collection of seemingly unrelated events with no clearly discernable timeline. More a film with fans of Depp as this film seems to skim over the true face of freelance journalism.
2. The Master
A Naval Veteran returns from the war unsettled, his behavioral and alcohol problems catch the eye of the charismatic leader of The Cause. Joaquin Phoenix plays a sex obsessed, barely verbally legible, violent animal, made mentally ill by a combination of his consumption of his home brew alcohol (which kills some who consume it) and post traumatic stress disorder. The leader of The Cause (which looks suspiciously like Scientology) takes upon Phoenix as a friend and case study, using the mantras of The Cause to try and train him into becoming a normal and healthy human being.
Both Philip Seymore Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix play incredibly affecting characters, the film received three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor for Phoenix, Best Supporting Actor for Hoffman, and Best Supporting Actress for Adams.
A married couple’s relationship which is built on their mutual love of alcohol is put to the test when the wife decides to sober up. Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an elementary school teacher and secret alcoholic. Her alcoholism begins to affect her job and Kate decides to join AA and quit drinking. Kate finds that alcoholism in a relationship cannot be onesided and her relationship begins to break down in addition to all other parts of her life.
Winstead is stand out in this film, she is sweet, shy and awkward in parts – the girl next door. Or, the girl next door you didn’t know drinks herself to excess. Excess in this case includes one particularly embarrassing scene including public urinating.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Really fun list here! Some that I did not know about. Why didn’t you add The Hangover here? Hence the name 😀
Happy to see Days of Wine and Roses here. Good classic that gives me some nostalgia.
Thank you 🙂 I wanted to try and choose films that didn’t celebrate excessive drinking and dealt with it in a more real way. The classics are great, there are a lot more of these drama-alcoholism films throughout the eighties to look out for too!
I find it strange that I haven’t seen any of the movies on this list, well maybe just one. I have been wanting to check out nearly all of the others on the list, though.
I’d really suggest you give some of these a go, I have trouble picking a favourite. They are all quite affecting. Glad I could give you a list to try out!
Oh do I need to rewatch Walk the Line. Let me check Netflix…
I had to rewatch it after writing this article, it is such a well made and well acted out film
This is an interesting list. I never thought about looking at films about alcoholism after noticing the popularity of “party” films like The Hangover. They all look interesting. And I never really thought of the Master as a film about alcoholism before, but that’s an interesting way to look at it.
Watching Joaquin drinking almost straight metholated spirits throughout The Master made me have to add it to the list. It is quite subtle about his alcoholism but it really adds context to his behavioural problems throughout the film.
Great list, I really loved Smashed, it’s good to see someone else appreciating it. Winstead and Nick Offerman were definitely stand outs! It was very thought-provoking, and sometimes funny at the same time.
I do love the obscurely funny conversation about things being “moist”. As well as Aaron Paul trying to ride a bike 😉
It is equally as sensitive with the film content and I can’t think of anyone better than Winstead for this role. She was barely on my radar before this to be honest.
I love this article- I wish that there were more of these consequence-based representations on television, apart from the odd ‘very special episode.’
I actually enjoyed Bullock in 28 days. If you look at it from a metacognitive perspective, you can see how her ‘golden girl’ status is really used. We already place her at a certain level, so to see her push the bottom of the barrel is really disconcerting. The film does gloss over the worst elements of addiction, but perhaps one could see it as a positive, as it did reach a wider audience than many other films with similar thematic concerns.
Your point about the wider audience is certainly true and it is a positive step for Hollywood to feature an alcoholism centred storyline as something that should not be celebrated, despite the shallowness of its treatment.
That’s an interesting way to consider Bullock, I think I just see a bit of ‘Miss Congeniality’ that does not belong in the make up of this character in the way that Bullock performs.
Very nice to have Factotum with these great movies. I am a huge Bukowski fan and love everything he’s done. So when I heard they we’re making a movie based on factotum I was exstatic.
I really enjoyed this list. There’s a great Russian play out there called the Drunks that I had the pleasure of viewing a couple of years ago, very satirical and a must for somebody with an interest in the subject of alcoholism.
Thanks Dale 🙂 I’ll look into that
Days of Wine and Roses is one of my favorite films. I used to watch it regularly, but as I got older and realized too many things in it were just to real to be enjoyed, it began to fade for me.
Very compelling article.
I like the spin of this article. Popular opinion usually goes in the more-drunk-is-better direction. Clever idea and relatively unknown movie list.
Thank you very much, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Great to see Leaving Las Vegas get some recognition, it is the film I always point friends towards whenever they start hating on Nicolas Cage. Hadn’t heard of Smashed, certainly going to check it out.
I only got onto it this year myself after a friend of mine started slandering Nicholas Cage. He changed his mind after seeing it.
Really interesting theme to discuss, I haven’t seen most of these but will definitely investigate them! Great article.
I love Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas! Below is a link to an interview between him and Roger Ebert about the movie.
It’s interesting how it seems much of the time movies don’t seem to focus solely on alcoholism but combine it with substance abuse in general but there have been some other quite recent films that have dealt with the issue. Flight, Crazy Heart, and Young Adult come to mind.
I definitely agree that films are more inclined to deal with combined substance abuse rather than just alcoholism, like alcoholism is a less serious issue that drug abuse.
I just watched Flight with Denzel Washington, I came back here to see if this was on the list. A definite must-see on alcoholism and by my absolute favourite director, Robert Zemeckis
Good suggestion, that film slipped my mind!
I’ve been meaning to watch Walk the Line for the longest time, thanks for the reminder! Also, can I just point out that ‘Drunks: all they want is another shot’ is the most appalling yet wonderful pun.
I did enjoy the tagline when I first saw this film 🙂
Fantastic picks! Reckless abandon is encouraged across all mediums – Asher Roth’s “I Love College” music video, for example. You chose a great stylistic range to counter that (so I wouldn’t knock 28 Days). I think Larry Clark’s Kids would have been a good addition – another movie that showed how intoxication is romanticized.
Thank you, Sensationalized consumption is definitely more likely to occur I agree, like Party X, Superbad, Green Street Hooligans come to mind
I like your article topic, I haven’t seen it any place before. Fresh idea and great list, thanks for a good read.
Thanks for reading and the feedback 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it!
Oh my god, Flight is a great film about alcoholism.
I also remember loving Clean and Sober. There’s something about seeing folks on the big screen that makes me come out of my shell more.
What about When a man loves a woman? Or maybe even Georgia with Jennifer Jason Leigh?
Kabila, I know I’m late to the party, but your article was recommended to me by misagh, and I’m glad he did so. Good stuff.
Flight was forgotten…
Great list! Maybe you can help me out. I’m looking for a similar film, dealing with alcoholism. It’s set in a bar (or saloon, kind of has an old-west feel to it), with around 7 male characters (the central one is someone famous from the time whose name I should know, but fail to recall). It’s a long film, probably around 3 hours, in which the main character sits down and talks to each of the others, and to himself, mostly about the idea of “We have to stop drinking, and start doing something.” One of the characters has a plan, and leaves early on, only to return at the end unsuccessfully. The whole film is set in that one bar, with that central character just musing about life. Kind of like Waiting for Godot, set in a bar. One of the characters (maybe a Russian?) wakes up from time to time and shouts something, then passes out on the table again. It’s in color, so I’m guessing it’s from the 50s-60s. I just remember these flickering scenes, and I’ve been trying to find it for years now, with no luck. Hopefully you can help me 🙂
The one movie that everyone forgets on their list is the 1974 movie “The morning After” with Dick Van Dyke. It was made for TV, though Dick Van Dyke gives a great performance, right from the bottom of his soul.
He takes his struggle with alcoholism and puts it all out in this movie. It’s the one movie that focuses only on the devastation of what alcohol does to an alcoholic. They don’t put any other addictions, such as drugs, to focus solely on alcoholism.