There’s an amazing moment in the charming-but-otherwise-slight new romcom Juliet, Naked. Tucker Crowe, a reclusive, Jeff Buckley-esque ex-rock idol played by Ethan Hawke, has for complicated romcom reasons found himself at an English seaside museum’s centennial celebration, where a solicitous village bureaucrat offers to get him a beer. “Oh, don’t do that,” Crowe says affably. “I’m an alcoholic.”
Of course, the comically overeager official says something like “But it’s just beer!” and bustles off to find one anyway. In the meantime, another guest hands Crowe a club soda, and… that’s the end of it. Seriously, that’s all. There’s no further discussion of his sobriety, no monologue to come about the moment he hit bottom, or the people he damaged along the way. It’s just a moment in time where someone says he doesn’t drink. Its easiness kind of took my breath away.
Granted, Crowe is well-established by this point in the film as a former wild boy. A scene in which his many children and the mothers of those children pack the hospital room where he’s recovering from a heart attack make it clear he’s, you know, done some stuff. It’s not exactly a shocker that addiction is also in the mix. Still, there’s something both new and beautiful about how it’s treated: as just one more piece of information about a troublesome, interesting guy—not something that informs his entire identity.
That moment has lived on in my mind partly because it’s so unusual. When I think of drinking in the movies, two types of films come to mind. There are movies About Drinking, which tend to be praised as “gritty” or “hard-hitting.” In these movies, narratives and lives are defined by addiction (and sometimes eventual recovery). Some, like the lovely teen romance The Spectacular Now, are subtly and artfully made, while others are preachy and overwrought. (I’d place the new Star is Born remake somewhere in the middle.)
And then there’s Everything Else: Movies that aren’t about drinking, but whose characters magically drink as much as they want, whenever they want, without consequences. They drink while negotiating complex business deals. They drink and then drive capably on the freeway. They get mild hangovers after nights that would send most people to the hospital. They drink and have endless fun and the endless fun is often because of the drinking and never, ever in spite of it.
Think of the intermittently amusing Bad Moms, where the moms express their badness by drinking pretty much 24/7 (never mind that it’s herd behavior for suburban women, hardly rebellious at all) and everything is just fine. No one wrecks a car. No one gets arrested for public intoxication. Mila Kunis keeps looking exactly like Mila Kunis. It’s weird, right? Bordering on surreal. (And contrast it with Bridesmaids. I just saw the latter for about the twentieth time and was struck by how little serious boozing there is in it. And when the bridesmaids do start pounding drinks and pills, there are relatable consequences like, say, spotting a colonial woman on the wing of a plane, throwing all the passengers into hysterics, and getting arrested.)
I’m painfully aware that I am the dork complaining about a movie called Bad Moms not being realistic enough. But realism isn’t what I’m asking for. I’m not demanding that R-rated comedies become addiction PSAs, either. I’m asking for screenwriters and producers to be less fucking lazy. Just as not every movie recovery needs to involve speechifying, not every woman-gets-her-groove-back movie needs to signify it by showing said woman drinking wine straight from the bottle (ooh!). I haven’t seen Bad Moms 2—I kind of felt like I got the gist from the first one—but my fantasy is that it includes a character who drinks every day to cope with the impossible pressure to be a perfect mom. And then she transforms into a bad mom—which is to say a woman whose self extends beyond her kids—and she stops drinking (or fine, she becomes a one-glass woman) because she no longer needs it to survive. That would be as new as Tucker Crowe’s casual “Nah, I’m an alcoholic,” and offers more comic potential than one more scene of nice white ladies draped over a bar at 2 a.m.
I’m not holding my breath for this. But I also won’t—can’t—stop seeing the story behind what I’m shown on screen. The late critic Roger Ebert, who was sober for the last 34 years of his life, taught me how via his review of 2011’s Young Adult. Young Adult is a dark (very, very dark) comedy about a bitter, narcissistic ghostwriter named Mavis (Charlize Theron) who returns to her Minnesota hometown in an increasingly cringeworthy attempt to reclaim her high school glory days, not to mention her married high school boyfriend. Mavis is a fascinatingly awful person who shows just enough glimmers of real desperation to keep your attention, if not your sympathy. She manipulates and lies and takes shameless advantage of the fact that she looks like Charlize Theron.
She also drinks bourbon. A lot of it. Like, all day every day. And to the best of my knowledge, Roger Ebert is the only critic who really noticed. “She must be more or less drunk in every scene,” he wrote. Huh, that’s true, I thought when I read his review just after the film came out. I automatically revisited some moments from the film through that lens. It made them deeper and richer, sometimes funnier, and often sadder.
His next paragraph stopped me cold:
Alcoholism explains a lot of things: her single status, her disheveled apartment, her current writer’s block, her lack of self-knowledge, her denial, her inappropriate behavior. [Screenwriter] Diablo Cody was wise to include it; without such a context, Mavis would simply be insane.
Dude, whoa, I thought, with my usual supreme articulateness. I was still drinking then; I wouldn’t get sober for another two years. Still, I immediately saw that he was right—that Mavis’s drinking, though referenced only once in dialogue, underpinned of the entire story. I wasn’t ready to apply that notion to my own life; instead, I quickly reassured myself that Mavis drank a lot more than I did. (Which was true, but still—when you’re using fictional characters to minimize your own drinking, that might be something to think about.)
But it stuck with me: Without the drinking, she would simply be insane. And now I can’t unsee it. It’s why Bad Moms looks like the story of a collective breakdown, and Sideways a portrait of a hundred guys whose that I had to drink my way through just to tolerate. And it’s why one fleeting moment—Oh, don’t do that, I’m an alcoholic, accompanied by a dry chuckle—felt, twee-village setting and all, like seeing my own life on film.
Which is to say, it felt radical.