MRR Review: "How to Make Money Selling Drugs"

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film

MRR Review: "How to Make Money Selling Drugs"

-- Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 96 minutes
Release Date: April 26, 2013
Directed by: Matthew Cooke
Genre: Documentary

The drug war rages on in the United States, with some people calling it a success while others consider it to be a monumental failure. No matter what position viewers take regarding the drug war, "How to Make Money Selling Drugs" will give them some food for thought. It's divided into several segments, each with an interview by someone who's been affected by the drug trade at some point in their lives. Some of the segments actually seem like encouragement to try and make money selling drugs, while other parts are a clear deterrent.

The main conceit of the film is it gives the audience ten easy steps to make fast cash selling drugs, though some of it is tongue-in-cheek. Narrator Matthew Cooke takes viewers through each step, treating it like a level in a video game. In fact, parts of the film are styled to look like a video game, complete with status and progress bars and small pixilated characters. When the documentary isn't in video game mode, Cooke sits down with luminaries like 50 Cent, who's admitted to dealing drugs in the past. He recounts how easy it was to make big money just working a few hours a day. Other past dealers recount similar tales, with one bragging he could earn up to $3 million a day.

After dealers are interviewed, next comes people who make money on the other side of the drug trade. They are lawyers and police officers whose duty is to put drug dealers behind bars. While some staunchly push for tighter enforcement, others have changed their minds about some drug laws, pointing out that rapists and murderers sometimes get shorter sentences than someone who was caught with a couple of joints. When facts like this are pointed out, the film becomes a sobering look at the many facets of the drug trade that doesn't have any easy answers.

When not in video game mode or interviewing people, Cooke, who also wrote and directed the film, fills the screen with facts about the drug war. Some of these facts might be quite surprising to some people, especially those who don't closely follow crime statistics. The use of all three of these methods helps paint a broader picture of what's really going on in the drug war and does it far better than if it were a standard, straightforward documentary.

The use of the video game conceit could have easily backfired on Cooke, but he wisely steers clear of making it a distraction. Instead, it adds real entertainment value to the film, something which is sometimes a bit lacking in documentaries. There's nothing wrong with a regular documentary, but if one can be entertaining while still being informative, then it has a much better chance of succeeding. If something is memorable, like making a video game based on building a drug empire, then it's likely to stick with the viewer far longer than something that's cut-and-dried. The potential for the facts, statistics, and recounted stories in "How to Make Money Selling Drugs" to be remembered is high due to the video game motif.

The film is highly stylized thanks to its ten easy steps to becoming a drug kingpin and the video game segments. This could have been turned into a real screenplay with fictionalized characters that would have been very entertaining and original. In fact, it would be nice if Cooke took this concept a step further and did exactly that, as there would be nothing quite like it in movie theaters. However, Cooke has a message here he wants heard, hence the decision to make this into a very unconventional documentary. He doesn't come right out and take a stance about the drug war, but through the interviews and facts he pieces together, it's fairly clear how he feels, and he does try to sway the audience to his side.

Even if viewers don't agree with his way of thinking, the film is still a great opportunity to educate audiences about the reality of drug laws and sentencing. One doesn't have to see it Cooke's way to still enjoy the film and have it stick with them long after. It's his potent combination of stories, stats, and entertainment that really make the film hit home with the audience. It's too bad more documentaries don't take these creative risks, since they'd be much more enjoyable to watch, even if the subject matter is as grim as "How to Make Money Selling Drugs."

Rating: 3.5 out of 5