For decades, the Hays Production Code made the depiction of cocaine use in movies pretty scarce, even if it may have been present behind the scenes; even in the post-code years, scenes involving hard drugs were typically associated with movies about crime or counterculture. Today, cocaine use in movies is commonplace enough to serve as a punchline —and a tired one, as filmmakers search for new ways to use the drug in startling ways, whether in volume, as in the recent Babylon, or variety of users, as in the new movie Cocaine Bear, where both an American black bear and a couple of tweens wind up trying the drug.
In other words, cocaine scenes are plentiful. So what makes one truly memorable? The following list isn’t just the movies with the most coke, or the ones where coke use is a focal point. Rather, they’re funny, harrowing or otherwise memorable scenes fueled by cocaine use — where cocaine is integral to the action, but isn’t the only interesting thing going on. Some are quick hits, some are extended sequences, but they all have one thing in common: They all feature Margot Robbie. (OK, that’s not true, but she’s certainly become a mainstay coke-scene goddess in short order.)
20. Lord of War
Sure, you’ve seen plenty lines of coke in movies before, but have you ever seen one lovingly traced in the shape of Ukraine? That’s the Jared Leto difference in this scene from Lord of War, where a gunrunner (Nicolas Cage) winds up paid in cocaine rather than his preferred cash — and must track down his brother (Jared Leto) when he takes a kilo for himself. It’s not the most ostentatious Cage scene on this list, but it is the only one where Jared Leto frantically snorts dissipated coke dust off a floor.
19. Horrible Bosses
Most comedy sequences involving cocaine are just longer versions from a particular classic further up this list, but Horrible Bosses gets some decent mileage out of the logistical problem of attempting to reconstitute an extremely diffuse and valuable substance without getting high. Charlie Day and Jason Bateman are equally fun to see failing at this task, Day because his shrill motormouthed shtick is an easy match for playing cartoonishly coked-out, and Bateman because his deadpan delivery very much isn’t.
18. Jesus’ Son
There isn’t any cocaine clearly visible in this scene, and the film’s title (shared with the Denis Johnson book it adapts) refers to the Velvet Underground song “Heroin” — also the drug of choice for the semi-unnamed protagonist F.H. (Billy Crudup) of these addiction vignettes. But there’s an unmistakably cocaine-friendly vibe to the introduction of Michelle (Samantha Morton), who F.H. meets in this scene as she dances emphatically to Tommy Roe’s “Sweet Pea.” Ultimately, the junkies in this terrific, sensitive portrait aren’t choosy about the drugs they use to ease their pain (and, in some cases, inflict pain on each other).
Movie scenes that teach you something, no matter how fleeting or seemingly minor, tend to linger in the memory, which is why the most memorable scene from a cocaine-running movie called Blow isn’t full of flash or violence. It just features a drug dealer explaining the numbers behind cocaine’s relative purity, and then flipping out as he realizes just how good those numbers are for the Colombian stuff provided by real-life dealer George Jung (Johnny Depp). Blow isn’t a great movie, but this scene illustrates how, in its best moments, it’s a punchy and concise one.
16. Starsky and Hutch
Since the 2000s, plenty of comedies have taken the “accidentally taking hard drugs” route. In the surprisingly funny Starsky & Hutch, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson rescue this scenario from cheap laughs, as uptight cop Starsky (Stiller) mistakenly puts cocaine, rather than sugar, into his coffee and has an amped-up night on the town. It’s a perfect use of Stiller’s tightly wound energy played against Wilson’s laid-back amusement.
As it turns out, building an eye-catching trailer out of a scene where two main characters are coked up, kicked off with a snorted-up Paramount Pictures logo, isn’t a great way to sell a movie to holiday audiences; just a few months after its release, Babylon has become notorious as a money-losing bomb, and pilloried by some critics as a sweaty try-hard epic. But hey, there’s truth in this advertising: The early scene where aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and future production executive Manny Torres (Diego Calva) meet and bond over a literal pile of cocaine is emblematic of the movie’s mixture of hopped-up frenzy, Old Hollywood beauty and disarming human frailty. Compared to some of the horrors that await, these two characters meeting cute over coke is downright genteel.
14. In Bruges
In a scene from Martin McDonagh’s first feature film, a pair of listless hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason) do cocaine with a little person (Jordan Prentice), who favors them with the kind of theorizing that often emerges when a bunch of sort-of friends get high together. As it turns out, he’s certain that a race war is coming, and everyone gets bogged down in the details of who will be fighting with who. McDonagh’s gift for dialogue is on full display, as is his sense of melancholy, which creeps in as Farrell and Gleason’s characters realize what a discomfiting party they’ve actually been attending.
Speaking of being stuck at a seedy coke party: Evan (Michael Cera), the meeker of the comic duo at the center of Superbad, gets trapped in a room with a bunch of cokehead strangers in this scene, who (mistaking him for “Jimmy’s brother”) demand that he serenade them with his allegedly beautiful voice. Naturally, he sings “These Eyes” by the Guess Who. Even more naturally, his sketchy new friends adore it; it is, as they say, a hell of a drug.
12. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Technically, the drug in this scene of Ron Burgundy and his pals getting high on air is crack, a cheaper cocaine derivative — which is what gives the moment some satirical bite, seeing a genuine scourge reduced to an upper-class curiosity at the whims of some cable-news dimwits.
11. Birds of Prey
In another endearing Margot Robbie coke binge, antiheroine Harley Quinn gets out a tight spot in a police evidence warehouse when stray bullets pierce a bunch of cocaine. She gleefully inhales, and in this cartoony DC Comics world, the drug works a bit like Popeye’s spinach, allowing her to finish off a killer fight scene. Both Robbie and the Popeye comparison will turn up again shortly.
10. Carlito’s Way
Al Pacino and Brian De Palma have another, more famous scene further up the list, but don’t sleep on this more subdued but still coke-fueled exchange from an even better movie. Here Carlito (Pacino), a former gangster attempting to reform, is cajoled into a sketchy situation by his cokehead lawyer Kleinfeld (a barely-recognizable Sean Penn); Kleinfeld only takes one sniff of cocaine during the conversation, but it’s the axis of the scene, explaining (though not excusing) his intensity, his paranoia and the many vices that will get Carlito into a hell of a lot of trouble before the movie is over.
“Cocaine Bear” Is All Excess, No HighThe sort of horror-comedy favors shtick over laughs
For a more nebbish-y, irritable cocaine binge, check out this party sequence from Greenberg, where Ben Stiller’s titular malcontent does drugs with a bunch of millennials, then immediately starts bickering over whether to put on Duran Duran or Korn (which is to say, expressing anxieties over his bygone youth). Few filmmakers are as adept at zeroing in on self-consciousness and insecurities as writer-director Noah Baumbach, and he uses Greenberg’s coke use (and incessant saying of the word “coke”) as a perfect excuse for passive-aggressive generational warfare.
8. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Let’s assume that Nicolas Cage’s character in the Bad Lieutenant companion piece Port of Call New Orleans is on cocaine for almost all of the scenes of the movie where he’s not on heroin. But he’s especially on-cocaine for the scene where he’s distracted from police business by the presence of iguanas on his coffee table, which his colleagues assure him are not actually there. Director Werner Herzog then uses hyper-digital close-ups of the lizards to give the scene an additionally unnerving kick. What a picture!
Any number of scenes from Brian De Palma’s Scarface could probably qualify here, but let’s stick to the greatest hit: kingpin Tony Montana (Al Pacino) sitting on his throne, grimly dipping his face into a pile of cocaine at his desk and calling for vengeance. At this point, he can’t get any higher; his spectacular downfall is just moments away.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
There’s perhaps a more indelible coke-related image at the front of Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, but cocaine also fuels the punchline to the movie’s best black-comic set piece. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) has just rushed home while incapacitated on Quaaludes, desperate to stop his buddy Donnie (Jonah Hill) from talking to the FBI. Donnie, also on Quaaludes, chokes on a piece of ham, and Jordan takes inspiration from a Popeye cartoon, regaining stronger control of his body through the magic of his personal spinach: a vial of cocaine. Appropriately, it makes him feel, however briefly, like a superhero in the midst of ridiculous wreckage.
Yes, Trainspotting is a movie about heroin addiction, and in this scene where Spud (Ewen Bremner) gets high right before a job interview, he refers to the drug he’s taking as speed. But in the novel, at least, he refers to taking “Morningside speed,” which in the book’s milieu is (confusing) slang for coke, referring to an affluent suburb. (Basically, it’s “rich man’s speed.”) And that fits a bit better with the dynamics of these scene, wherein Spud is attempting to perk up for a state-mandated job interview — enthusiastic enough to appear genuinely interested in striving for respectable employment while self-sabotaging enough to make sure he doesn’t actually have to get off the dole.
4. Annie Hall
In perhaps the most succinct cocaine comedy scene in movies, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) hems and haws about trying cocaine, while his girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton) pushes him to be less cautious. Alvy proceeds to sneeze straight into the stash; his discomfort with stereotypically ’70s California culture is downright physiological.
3. Pulp Fiction
Is there a more iconic post-bump nose-wipe than the one Uma Thurman performs in front of the bathroom mirror in Pulp Fiction? It’s a brief moment but, like so many in the film, an instant classic — and followed up by the film’s even-more-iconic dance-contest sequence (which could count as an extension of its cocaine moment, given that Thurman’s Mia Wallace is high as hell for her big moment).
2. Boogie Nights
A scene of several characters doing coke, shot from underneath a glass table no less, was cut from Boogie Nights, and yet the movie still has one of the most infamous cocaine sequences in all of American cinema: an addled descent into drug-caper hell, as Dirk (Mark Wahlberg), Reed (John C. Reilly) and Todd (Thomas Jane) attempt to rip off drug dealer Rahad (Alfred Molina). The coke they’re selling is fake; the paranoia, desperation and fireworks tossed off at random to jangle their nerves are very real. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson scores it all to the dealer’s mixtape of ‘80s hits.
How could number one be anything else than the extended sequence late in Goodfellas featuring a coked-out Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) frantically running errands, some illicit and some familial, on a Sunday in May? It’s a tour de force from director Martin Scorsese, who certainly understood a coke-addled state of mind and draws the audience straight into it even if they’ve never been high in their lives. Henry tries to keep his life moving, but he can’t stop staring at the helicopters that seem to be constantly hovering overhead.
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