Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn)
SUMMARY: Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) lives in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and spends most of her time watching TV, particularly one specific infomercial. Sara’s husband died some years before, and her adult son, Harry (Jared Leto), lives away from home. One day, Sara gets a phone call telling her that she has made it through the preliminary round of selections for a TV spot. Though there are more hoops to jump through, Sara is convinced that she will be on TV, and immediately starts planning her appearance. She decides to wear the same dress that she wore for Harry’s high school graduation, but unfortunately, she is much heavier now, and the dress does not fit. A friend gives her a diet book, but Sara is put off by the restrictions (no sugar, etc.), and quickly gives up. After she hears about a doctor who prescribes diet pills, she makes an appointment and easily gets a prescription. The pills include amphetamines for the day, to help weight loss, and sedatives for night, so she can sleep. Sara finds this routine much easier to follow than the diet, and also enjoys the way the pills make her feel. Soon, she is able to fit into the dress, but discovers that the pills do not make her feel the same way they used to, so she starts taking double, then triple, the dosage. This results in amphetamine psychosis, which frequently involve the infomercial, the TV, and the refrigerator. Meanwhile, Sara’s son Harry is also in the midst of an addiction, though his has been going on much longer than his mother’s. Harry is a heroin addict, as are his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). When Harry needs money, he often steals from his mother: he has taken her TV so often that she has started chaining it to the radiator (she knows where to go to get it back, too). Marion dreams of designing and making her own clothing, and Harry wants to help her open a store, so the two of them, along with Tyrone, decide to become drug dealers at Coney Island.
For a time, the business thrives, and the money piles up. Harry and Marion even lease store space, and Harry buys his mother a new TV as a gift. During this time, he figures out that she is doing both uppers and downers, but she insists that she is fine, and he does not press the issue. Tyrone is the link to their drug source, and is offered a promotion within the organization — right before his source is killed in a gang shootout, and he is arrested and jailed. Harry has to use most of their saved money to bail him out, and when he does, their ability to make more money has dried up, since their source is dead. In addition, the wholesalers in Florida are being very stingy with their heroin, and little is making it to New York. However, Tyrone does learn of a shipment coming in, but it has a very high price. To get his half of the needed money, Harry asks Marion to get it from her psychiatrist, who has made it known that he will trade sex for money. Marion hates the idea, but eventually does it, and gives Harry the money. Along with Harry and Tyrone, tons of other small-time dealers show up for the shipment, and it isn’t long before gunshots break out, and the dealer leaves in panic. Marion is in the midst of a withdrawal, and has ransacked the apartment in their absence. She is so desperate that Harry gets the phone number of a man who will trade heroin for sex, but he decides to leave with Tyrone, and simply go to Florida themselves to get the drugs. As this is happening, Sara’s hallucinations have driven her out of the house and into the office of the casting agency that called her. The receptionist sees Sara’s erratic behavior and calls the paramedics, who take her to the hospital. A number of treatments and medications are used, but when nothing seems to work, Sara (somewhat unwittingly, as she’s really out of it) gives her permission for shock therapy. As Harry and Tyrone drive to Florida, Harry’s left arm, which is infected from the frequent heroin injections, begins to bother him (though it doesn’t stop him from injecting right into the sore). Tyrone decides that Harry needs a doctor, but at the clinic, the pair’s drug use is quickly spotted, and they are arrested. Harry continues to get worse, and is eventually sent back to the hospital. Back in New York, when the boys fail to return with money or drugs, Marion calls the dealer, then sleeps with him for heroin. Later, she attends a party at which she performs degrading sexual acts with other women, while a large group of men looks on. As the film ends, Sara is visited by two friends, but does not recognize them; Harry is in the hospital after having his left arm amputated (possibly gangrene); Tyrone is doing hard labor in prison, while also going through withdrawal, and Marion has returned to her apartment with a large bag of heroin. In the hospital, Sara dreams of being on TV with Harry.
MY TAKE: Boy, if you weren’t already convinced that drugs are a bad idea, this film will do it for you. I’ve often said that I don’t know why anybody starts doing drugs (or even smoking) in today’s day and age, because we know so much about what it will do to you — and that knowledge is imparted at an early age, through various school and community programs. Even without all that, this film would scare me away from them. For a while, things seem to be really rosy for Harry, Marion and Tyrone: they’ve managed to break into the drug business, have enough heroin to keep themselves happy, and are making money hand over fist. Unfortunately, as nearly everybody knows, this period doesn’t last (seriously, watch Scarface), as the addiction and consequences take over. Tyrone gets arrested, though he really didn’t have anything to do with the shooting, and his bail eats most of the cash — which both wipes out the business fund and the trio’s ability to get more drugs. Marion, in particular, gets really desperate, and again unfortunately, there are a lot of people willing to take advantage of people like her. I didn’t need quite that much graphic information during these parts of the movie — I’m pretty aware of how most female drug addicts end up getting money. For me, it’s sad that she has to resort to that, but it’s even more sad that there are men (or people in general) who are willing to prey on that. Doesn’t speak too highly of humanity. Despite all the chaos involved in Harry, Marion and Tyrone’s story, the one that really draws the attention is Sara. She seems to be completely oblivious to the idea of drug addiction, which seems pretty implausible — it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why your son keeps taking your things and pawning them. She’s determined to lose enough weight to wear the same dress from years ago: on one hand, I would say just buy a new dress, but that one has emotional value, given that it was her husband’s favorite, and she wore it to Harry’s graduation. She decides to diet, and picks possibly the worst diet ever (she gets one hardboiled egg, half a grapefruit, and one cup of unsweetened coffee for breakfast — I’d have freaked out too) to lose the weight. Not surprisingly, given her established habit of sititng in front of the TV, the dieting (which never includes exercise) doesn’t go so well. Sara then compounds her obliviousness by going to a doctor who prescribes weight loss pills. There are a few major problems here, although given that the film came out in 2000, they might not have been so obvious then: 1. any pill that can make you lose weight without any effort is suspicious; 2. when you have to take meds to counteract your other meds, it’s suspicious (she has to take downers to sleep); 3. when the doctor doesn’t even look up from the chart before prescribing the pills, it’s a giant, flashing warning sign. Somehow, Sara misses all these signs, and promptly gets addicted to the pills. You can totally see the effect right away: she takes the pills and almost immediately starts fidgeting. She cleans every inch of the house, takes her sweater on and off, and starts grinding her teeth, which are all dead giveaways that something’s messing with your system. Harry figures it out in about three minutes, and in a terrific instance of the pot calling the kettle black, informs her that she needs to stop taking the pills. Of course, she doesn’t, and he doesn’t take his own advice, either. It’s just a sad situation all around.
P.S. Where the heck did Marlon Wayans come from? Is this the same guy that did White Chicks and Little Man?
Fun fact: More than a decade later, Jared Leto would actually win an Oscar for playing another drug addict, in Dallas Buyers Club.