‘How to Make Money Selling Drugs’ is Matthew Cooke’s tongue-in-cheek documentary, which humourously gamifies the drug-dealing business but still packs a serious message with some big name Hollywood stars to help deliver it.
Firstly, we’re shown the hierarchical structure within the drug-dealing world then we’re taken through the various stages of this upwardly mobile dope ladder, using some endearingly eccentric characters to illustrate the potential rise to the very top.
The clever thing writer/director Cooke does here is to turn each stage into a ‘level’, using graphics and retro sound effects to generate the impression of a video game being played by the audience as they move through their education of the drug underworld. The idea being that we’re being taught at each level, by our charmingly charismatic drug-dealer tutors, exactly how to purchase, process and distribute narcotics in order to return the greatest profit.
Clever, yes, but after the fifth or sixth level this starts to feel like a gimmick leaving the audience wondering how much more of this they’ll have to sit through. But then you have Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson. And he’s not alone. He’s brought his friends Eminem, Susan Sarandon and (a very brief word from) Woody Harrelson to add weight to the serious message hidden behind the quirky graphics and flippant anecdotes.
Candid in its expression of the highs and lows of this violent and addictive lifestyle, this serious message comes about two thirds of the way through the film and rides the preceding wave of levity and entertainment to deliver its crushing impact. Although effective, this formula of ‘make them laugh, make them laugh, make them cry’ comes across as a bit obvious. The tonal turning point felt more like an Oxfam appeal video than a heart-wrenching and well earned reveal.
Add in the multiple references and clips of the hit TV show ‘The Wire’ (whether to lend authenticity, as a pop reference or to cash in on its massive success remained unclear) and you’re served an engaging, entertaining and ultimately human documentary film delivered with enough originality and insight to leave you thinking about the core issue of US drug law reform.
When the laughs died down, the message was pretty bleak. When there’s nowhere else to go and no other way to make money, drugs can provide the answer.