"If the American Dream broke its promise to you, don't worry, we have an answer," says Matthew Cooke, the director / writer of the salaciously-titled documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs. This slick, breezy production sits down with former dealers, retired law enforcement agents, and celebrity activists to investigate just how easy it really is to buy into one of the world's biggest businesses...as well as discuss how drug prohibition laws set by the United States government just feed the beast, and potential solutions to a problem that does little but perpetuate itself. Paired with Cooke's witty "now you can too!" structure, this is an entertaining sit that simultaneously captures the flashy appeal of becoming a wealthy drug kingpin, without shying away from the dark side.
The film's title is more than just a hook to get people to pick up the DVD; Drugs is actually structured like a faux "how-to" manual that walks the viewer from street level hustler to head of an international drug cartel. It's a clever way to lighten what might have been a very dark and dramatic documentary, and it neatly dovetails with Cooke's message, which is that drug dealing and poverty are inextricably intertwined. Nearly all of the film's interview subjects were drawn into the business as children of extremely poor families, by the prospect of getting rich quick. Acknowledging that not only saves Cooke the trouble of downplaying the surface appeal of money and power (nearly everyone has a glint in their eyes reflecting upon their first success in the business), but also gives the film a strong satirical bite.
The structure also provides a pretty straightforward road map for Cooke to follow in explaining the way the drug trade functions. Although many of the levels are not much different, other than the amount of money being made and the drugs being sold, he works his way from the streets of Detroit back out to the beaches of Florida, where cocaine and other narcotics enter the country, and then briefly into Mexico, where drugs are a truly deadly business (a lone image of several decapitated heads is so oddly casual in its brutality it's hard to process). He ties each of the segments together with animation, on-screen captions, and other graphics, which tend to look a little cheap but certainly get the job done, as well as narrating the film himself.
The real value of the film, though, lies in the recollections of its many subjects, all of whom candidly and openly recall joining gangs, narrowly avoiding prison, tricks of the trade, and addiction. Subjects include Bobby Carlton, who started selling marijuana at 15 before heading to Florida and driving boats of cocaine into the U.S.; Brian O'Dea, a high school dropout who would eventually earn a million dollars a day carrying drugs on his boat; Mike Walzman, who became rich selling coke at private school; and "Freeway" Rick Ross, a kingpin who at his height carried around $40,000 a day just to hand out to friends and family. In addition to dealers, Cooke also speaks to a couple of former law enforcement agents, including Barry Cooper, who went from cop to cop stopper, making a living out of busting officers who plant evidence and twist the facts in order to bust people, and of course, some celebrity drug reform advocates like Susan Sarandon and Woody Harrelson.
Throughout, Cooke smoothly drops in information about the drug war and the way police and prisons depend on government money and bust money provided by said drug war to survive. As a result, his final segue from drug dealing to drug law reform is mostly smooth, although it could stand to contain a little more clarification on the idea that ending drug prohibition is also effective in combating addiction and drug use through the rerouting of resources toward recovery programs (the film mentions this after the fact, leaving a slightly contradictory portion where everyone talks about the hope that drugs will be decriminalized in the name of personal freedom, then offer horror stories about the agony of addiction). A portion with retired cop Neil Franklin also comes off slightly overbearing in its depiction of the drug war's emotional toll (that's me questioning Cooke, not Franklin). Arguing for a single, specific course of action is a move that could be considered preachy, but Cooke wisely relies on his subjects, rather than his talking points, to make a convincing case.
In keeping with the film itself, How to Make Money Selling Drugs arrives with bold caution tape artwork that reflects the silhouette style of the film's animation. Although the image itself is a little vague (it seems like it ought to be more of a montage or offer more of a focal point), it fits the attention-grabbing title and the film itself perfectly, which is more than can be said about most DVD artwork these days. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly DVD case, with an insert about Tribeca Film, and a cardboard slipcover with identical artwork.
The Video and Audio
Being a documentary, this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is all over the place, even the content shot specifically for the film. Balanced material tends to look very nice, with crisp detail and nicely-saturated color, but at least one of the interviews is intentionally blown out, and banding is visible in another. The film contains a number of animated sequences and lots of on-screen text, which leads to occasional, light aliasing. Dolby Digital 5.1 audio adequately covers the talking head segments, and there is a little flair in the film's numerous stylish, amped-up sequences, even if the film is not exactly a surround experience. A Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is also offered, but sadly, no subtitles or captions.
Two extras are included. The first is an audio commentary by director / writer Matthew Cooke. On this track, Cooke describes the project's long gestation period and working with producer Adrian Grenier to finally get the film made, a little about how he managed to get in contact with many of the movie's participants, and of course, a wealth of information about the drug war that couldn't quite fit into the film itself. The commentary was also recorded somewhat recently, allowing Cooke to touch on subjects that were not available at the time of filming. The other extra is a single deleted scene (4:36) -- or perhaps it's really several -- with Russell Simmons.
Trailers for The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia and Dog Pound play before the main menu.
It could be argued that How to Make Money Selling Drugs is more entertaining than informative, opting for a flashy, graphic-laden presentation that covers the bases but isn't particularly revelatory. However, Cooke's interviews are unique and interesting, providing the film with a nice blend of points and personality. Recommended.
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