Cocaine: One Man's Seduction

Director: Paul Wendkos        
Dennis Weaver, Karen Grassle, James Spader

I've never been very sympathetic towards people who are addicts. Maybe part of the reason for that comes from the fact that I've found myself to be more or less a teetotaller all my life; when it comes to non-liquid stimulates, I've never even tried cigarettes, and as for the liquid kind, at most I may have one beer every six months. So whenever I hear a case of someone who became addicted to something, often my first though is something along the lines of, "How on earth could you do something so stupid as that?" I realize how harsh (and maybe even misanthropist) that statement might sound, and I will admit that there seems to be a case for people who became addicted to medication prescribed to them for a major medical ailment - some of those drugs do indeed on occasion make their takers into unwilling addicts. But what I can't understand is that when this kind of thing happens, why don't the addicts many times do anything about it? Why didn't Rush Limbaugh, upon realizing he was addicted to pain medication, make a firm and uninterrupted effort to get help straight away? Not wanting to be embarrassed? Well, I don't see how it could have been any more embarrassing than how it eventually ended up - in fact, I would say that any embarrassment that would have come up would have been minimal at best. But a question that puzzles me even more is why there are people seemingly of reasonable intelligence who start taking illegal drugs out of their own free will. Why, when for decades there have been so many cautionary reports and stories on these substances?

So when I came across the movie Cocaine: One Man's Seduction during one of my regular patrols of the pawn shops in my city, I decided to pick it up. I felt that perhaps I might get some illumination on this question of how people can become addicts. However, I must confess that there was another part of me that was interested in seeing the movie for a totally different reason. That's because a study of the video box gave me circumstantial evidence that this movie might instead be a glorious exercise in camp. After all, think of how many times during the decades of various depictions of drug use in popular entertainment that were intended to be serious and hard-hitting, but instead came across as unintentionally funny, at least when seen in this day and age. There have been songs, like Neil Diamond's bizarre The Pot-Smoker's Song ("Pot! Pot! Give me some pot! Forget what you are, you can be what you're not!"), and there have been movies like Reefer Madness and Blood Freak. Naturally, Cocaine was also one, but it also happened to be made for TV - and I think all of us have chuckled over how heavy-handed television productions have often been when dealing with equally heavy issues. Plus, the star of the movie was Dennis Weaver - the thought of seeing all-American Weaver, star of McCloud and Gentle Ben as a raging coke addict further suggested what I was holding might be the stuff dreams of so-bad-they're-good movies are made of. So I figured that it would be a worthwhile viewing experience; either by being illuminated or tickled, my attention would be held.

Weaver plays Eddie Gant, who at the age of 47 seems to have an ideal life, employed as a realtor at a prestigious San Diego real estate firm, and a home life with a loving wife (Grassle, Little House On The Prairie) and a clean-cut son (Spader, Stargate and The Practice) who's preparing Cocaine: One Man's Seductionto graduate from high school. In actual fact, Eddie is feeling troubled and unhappy, and not just because he has the body of a 59 year-old actor. Once the top salesman at the firm, his rank has drastically slipped down in recent months since the changed market has made it difficult for family home realtors like him to find clients, and only the firm's younger and more energetic clients are getting the hot-selling luxury homes. To make matters worse, when his boss and friend abruptly sells the company, Eddie gets no benefits despite all the work he put in years earlier to start up the company. Not long afterwards, Eddie discovers at an office party that his female co-worker Robin (Pamela Bellwood, Dynasty) uses cocaine. Eddie is shocked, but she points out that she's not gone wacko, and that she finds it a reliable pick-me-up. He soon discovers that her successful banker friend Bruce (TV regular David Ackroyd) does cocaine as well, and he's doing fine mentally and at his job. When Eddie finds out that some of those young hot-shot realtors are using the drug to give them the energy and endurance to be successful, he decides that trying it couldn't hurt, maybe even help him out of his rut. At first it seems to be the miracle he was looking for, but soon... you guessed it. (Though the fact that there don't seem to be that many movies where drugs leads to happy ending to their users probably gave you a clue.)

I have a feeling that most people (if not, all people) who are reading this review are more interested in how unintentionally humorous the movie gets in its depiction of cocaine addiction, rather than how genuinely successful it is doing this, so I will start my critique on the former rather than the latter. So does Cocaine: One Man's Seduction end up being hilarious despite its earnest intentions? Well, I started laughing during the opening credits - as they play out, you hear a tapping sound, a sound akin to a credit card being used to cut coke. As the tapping continues, another repeating sound on the soundtrack gets louder and louder. It sounds like - and I swear I'm not making this up - "... sniff sniff... Sniff Sniff... Sniff Sniff... SNIFF SNIFF..." Honest! Though nothing that follows can measure up to that mind-boggling opening, that's not to say that the rest of the movie is laugh-free. As you might expect, the coked-up Eddie soon starts acting in a number of wacky ways. Seeing Dennis Weaver rapidly blinking his eyes and talking at double-speed after his first blast of coke... changing his look to a leather jacket and sunglasses... driving down the highway while snapping his fingers out of the open car window... talking on the phone with one hand while vigorously applying nasal decongestant with the other... experiencing extreme horniness (several times), and proudly saying things like, "Right now I'm ve-ry loa-ded!" with a wicked grin on his face... well, it's classic stuff.

There are also a few other laughs not directly involving Weaver, such as after one of Eddie's friends (Jeffrey Tambor, Hill Street Blues) attempts suicide after becoming addicted to cocaine himself - the plaster cast getup he subsequently wears in his hospital bed provides unintentional amusement. But in actual fact, goofy moments such as these ultimately prove to be exceptions rather than the rule; Cocaine: One Man's Seduction actually manages to stay at a very serious level for almost all of its 97 minutes. And as an earnest look at addiction, there are some good things to say about it. For one thing, some of the acting here is very good, so good that even some preachy lines of dialogue don't sound forced. When James Spader's character reacts with utter disgust upon learning of his father's addiction, replying, "I don't do drugs because I made the choice not to," you honestly believe this teenager is as dedicated to his health as he's mentioned here and earlier. Even better is Tambor, who after recovering and cleaning up, corners Eddie one evening and tries to get through to him that's he's going to end up dead if he continues his drug habit. It's your basic "Drugs are evil, hear how I almost died" speech, but Tambor puts so much emotion in his delivery that you have no doubt that the character has not only been there, but is seeing the horror again in front of his own eyes and is terrified of the good chance his friend will die. It's unfortunate that after this scene, his character abruptly disappears from the movie altogether.

As for Weaver, while those symptoms I described earlier are pretty laughable, at the same time I couldn't say that such behavior couldn't happen in real life. When you also factor in his quieter moments, Weaver comes across a lot better. Cocaine gives its users plenty of low moments as well, and Weaver quietly yet effectively shows us the headaches, exhaustion, not wanting to be touched, and impotence. (The last one will help counteract any horror you may have felt upon seeing him horny.) Before getting addicted, Weaver expectedly well plays the role of loving husband and father, also handling with equal ability the darker edge the teleplay gives his character, an edge that does give some answers as to why someone might get involved with drugs. Eddie is shown to be a man who feels he must not only stay in control, but to also be on top of things. Even though it's shown early on that he's still doing better than many of the other realtors in the business, he can't seem to take comfort in that fact. He's also dead-set on his son going to college right after graduation, and when he finds out from his wife that he wants to take a year off first, he is so bewildered and unprepared that he quickly blurts out, "The subject of Buddy is closed!" and storms out of the room. That news, plus the other disasters that come up into his life in this time period clearly weaken him mentally and physically. With his defenses down, it's more understandable why he would seriously consider any possible lifeline thrown in his direction.

And it's not like he immediately starts using cocaine when it's first offered to him. After refusing Robin's offer, several days later he refuses the offer of the drug when Bruce takes out his own vial. But upon subsequently talking about it more with Bruce... no doubt remembering Robin's not having problems... and seeing Bruce is also not having problems with it... and also remembering "nothing happened" when he tried pot in college... he decides to give it a try. So Eddie's eventual plunge into cocaine ends up being pretty believable because of the teleplay's patience in showing how his resolve is broken down. A nice subsequent touch is that Eddie does not become instantly addicted to cocaine; in fact, the movie has the guts to suggest that cocaine may not become addicting to casual users like Robin and Bruce, and may only become addicting if the user decides to use it on a frequent basis. But it's in depicting the consequences of addiction that the movie makes a serious stumble. Though the movie seems to have been intended to depict the disastrous consequences of cocaine addiction, it really doesn't seem to be affecting Eddie's life that seriously until near the end of the movie. Sure, it eventually starts making him tired and confused, his wife is (somewhat) p*ssed about their now non-existent sex life, but that's about it. His job never seems to be on the line even when his nose starts bleeding during presentations, he seems to be keeping a good hand on his finances and possessions, and even his disappointed son stays home and keeps his mouth shut.

How can we begin to understand the power of cocaine addiction if the user doesn't seem to be suffering that much? Well, the movie still could have worked had the movie shown everything around Eddie crumbling because of his habit, and he being too blind to see it until he bottomed out, or kept going until he died. Either way, it would fit the profile of many real-life cases of drug addiction. (Spoilers follow.) As it turns out, neither happens; Eddie's s-l-o-w descent into drug hell only stops after he accidentally overdoses, and he is immediately rushed to hospital. You might think then that the movie would deal with Eddie being forced to deal with his habit, but no. We never see his treatment there, and his subsequent trial (where he's give a light sentence) is glossed over as well. When he gets home, you think that maybe finally there would be some serious discussion with his family over what happened. Instead, the movie has the chutzpah to have Eddie more or less just say "I'm sorry," and in short notice everyone is hugging each other as we get the freeze-frame ending. So the movie not only doesn't work as a unintentional comedy, it's also unsatisfying overall as a serious drama. This is one kind of coke that doesn't add life.

(Posted May 9, 2017)

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See also: Blood Freak, Duel At Diablo, French Connection II