Under certain circumstances, selling drugs to earn a living becomes a choice for many. Humans are nothing if not survivors, eking out a living by any means necessary to put food on the table, pay bills, and stay afloat. Beyond teaching viewers the correct way to pronounce sheeeeit, “The Wire” gracefully portrayed the lack of options for many people, proving the drug game isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. But what if we could actually choose what we want to do with our lives, and the moral quandary wasn’t an issue? Just like Sonny told the “The Godfather,” “There’s a lot of money in that white powder.”
Writer/director Matthew Cooke (along with Vinnie Chase himself, Adrian Grenier, on board as producer) does away with moral compunctions in “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” a sort-of modern day response to hilariously misguided propaganda films like “Reefer Madness.” The film is often compelling, clever and entertaining, but oddly enough, these strongest moments are revealed in an awkward third act tonal and structural shift to be nothing more than filler. The filmmakers basically retcon their movie, taking what plays quite well, for the first hour or so, as a satiric riff on video games and get rich quick videos, and turn it in to its own piece of familiar agitprop. Once the agenda — damning the exorbitant cost and overall ineffectiveness of the War on Drugs — becomes clear, what’s frustrating is not that the rug has been pulled out from under the audience (the film is pro freedom/drug/recovery from the outset, which we’re cool with), but that it abandons the playful structure that made it such a fun, interesting watch in place of something sadly more by-the-numbers.
Despite the crazy, not always believable onslaught of facts being thrown at the viewer (9 out of 10 U.S. $20 dollar bills are tainted with cocaine…wait, huh?), the first hour had this writer seriously considering giving up this poor man’s game of film criticism and venturing into the exciting world of drug dealing. It looks that easy! Which, of course, it’s not, but realizing that actually strengthens and adds humor to the structural tactic employed for the documentary. After all, can any movie solely teach you how to get rich quick in anything?
The best moments come from specifics, as former drug dealers describe how and why drugs became their life and career. Many of the subjects are charismatic, forthright and funny. Their stories are familiar, but their candor and comfort in front of the camera feels modern and fresh. There’s Pepe, a retired SoCal drug dealer with a great smile, who spouts off one winning line after another, so good that the filmmakers couldn’t resist plastering them on the screen with bold text (another playful and appropriate move): “Weed makes friends,” “Anyone can do it,” “To grow some weed all you need is electricity, big lamps and water… buy the seeds on the Internet.” Brian O’Dea is a fascinating hybrid of Goerge Jung (who Johnny Depp portrayed in “Blow“) and Walter White. When ‘Drugs’ is firing on all cylinders, it feels as if you’re in a room with these people, just listening to one crazy story after another. The common thread: the reason people sell drugs is not too harm others, they just needed to make a lot of money and fast. They all did this, and so can you, the film is saying with a devilish grin and winking eye.
But, again, this is a documentary at odds with itself. Plenty of addiction testimonials in the third act from the subjects and celebrities like Eminem serve to prevent the film from veering onto a pro-drug agenda, but it comes out of nowhere, especially if you’re enjoying what’s come before, and it alters the film in a way that feels less satisfying than what you’ve been led to believe the film is going for. Instead, the message comes thick and heavy in the climax: we’re spending way too much on a war we can’t possibly win and people should be allowed to do what they want to do, if this is indeed a free country. Admittedly, it’s refreshing to see celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Woody Harrelson (if you’ve already seen “This is the End” you’ll have flashbacks to Jonah Hill‘s line, “Weed is for the people, it’s the people’s weed.) talk more about the potential for lots of fun doing drugs than the dangers, but it also shows the film losing its grip on tone. Basically, if you like drugs or have no problem with others doing what they choose to do with their body, then “How to Make Money Selling Drugs” will preach to your already converted mentality. The biggest failing of this mostly enjoyable documentary is that it works like a Michael Moore film. It probably won’t convince those outside the circle, it will only serve to push them further away. That’s a shame. [B-]