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Netflix’s ‘The Legend of Cocaine Island’ Is a Search for the Grifter’s American Dream

A lost suitcase filled with cocaine lies buried on a beach in Puerto Rico. One Florida man’s get-rich-quick scheme to unearth the lost contraband is a perfect example of the thrillingly lazy variety of wish-fulfillment fantasy that is in the air at the moment.

Ringer illustration

Give Netflix credit for this much, at least: When it decides to throw subtlety out the window, it throws subtlety all the way out. Like, here’s subtlety, sipping green tea in its loft, maybe saving some sweaters to Pinterest, when all of a sudden Netflix kicks through the wall in a leather biker vest, snarling through its handlebar mustache, pointing a meaty wrestler’s finger at subtlety and roaring, I’M HERE TO DEFENESTRATE YOU, CARL. Please, subtlety squeals, remember our tasteful collaboration on the Oscar campaign for Roma. But Netflix doesn’t give a SHIT about tasteful collaborations right now. Netflix is here to chew bubblegum and throw Room & Board sectionals through plate glass, and Netflix is all out of bubblegum. With menacing strides, Netflix advances across subtlety’s 100 percent natural seagrass rug. YOU READY TO MUNCH PAVEMENT, CARL???

The Legend of Cocaine Island, the documentary directed by Theo Love that debuted on the streaming service on Friday, is the sound subtlety makes as it plummets through the awning of the burger joint downstairs. It’s not a bad movie; it’s just that on a “deserves the name The Legend of Cocaine Island” scale of 1 to 10, it is a 47,000. Make no mistake: The Legend of Cocaine Island is extremely called The Legend of Cocaine Island. In the history of movies, there has probably never been a film more befitting of the title The Legend of Cocaine Island than this one. I imagine that was true even when it was called White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, which was the documentary’s name before it was acquired by Netflix (the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year). The new title might not make the movie seem more tasteful—if tasteful is a word we can invoke here—but it’s scrupulously accurate. This is a movie about some cocaine on an island, and the legend that cocaine generates. Hamlet is called Hamlet because it is about Hamlet.

The story of The Legend of Cocaine Island centers on a failing Florida businessman named Rodney Hyden, who hears a campfire story about a large stash of white powder buried in a duffel bag on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra and decides to go dig it up. The value of the cocaine is never clear—the number keeps changing, and, anyway, Rodney has no idea what cocaine is worth or how to sell it but whether it’s $1 million or $2 million or more, he needs the money, because the 2008 financial crisis has kneecapped his construction company. His Corvette has been impounded. His lake house is now a double-wide next to a pond. His wife is complaining. A lot of news anchors swirl past in a montage asking whether the American dream is dead, and Rodney’s answer is maybe, but not if you can find a treasure map to a stash of stolen narcotics, as the Founding Fathers intended.

Rodney is the sort of American character people used to write novels about, a vast, sweet, utterly amoral dreamer, a buyer of Jet Skis and doer of cannonballs, the type of small-time good old boy who probably voted for Trump but still gets high with his neighbors down at the pond. Rodney plays himself in The Legend of Cocaine Island’s many reenactment scenes, and he’s a lot of fun to watch, lumbering around in his teal business polo and lowering himself into his recliner with a sigh. (“Jump on up here,” he says at one point to the world’s tiniest, bounciest puppy, which springs onto his stomach and starts twirling in little circles.) He has no clue how to move cocaine into the United States, but he’s certain it can be done if he assembles the right crew. Surprisingly for a novice criminal based in the state of Florida, he does not assemble the right crew, and the first time they fly to Puerto Rico to retrieve the drugs, they are unable to dig on the beach because they have not brought a shovel.

These are strange days for magical thinking in the U.S. Something in the air seems to be encouraging a thrillingly lazy variety of wish-fulfillment fantasy. Harebrained schemes are failing everywhere you look. Two weeks ago in New York, a Lithuanian man, Evaldas Rimasauskas, who bilked Facebook and Google out of $100 million by literally just sending them fake bills—which they paid—pleaded guilty to wire fraud. Last week in northern New Jersey, a father and son, George Bussanich and George Bussanich Jr., also pleaded guilty to fraud after selling millions of dollars in investments in a company that they made up. They used the money to buy sports cars. Last Monday, Michael Avenatti, a longstanding titan of #resistance grift who rose to prominence representing the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels in her lawsuits against President Donald Trump, was arrested for trying to blackmail Nike for more than $20 million. According to federal prosecutors, his plan involved calling Nike on the phone and saying he would release damaging information about the company unless he was paid a large amount of money. I like to think he concluded this pitch by reading aloud from Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “exortion” and then texting his location to FBI agents.

What’s fascinating to me about these schemes is the basic optimism they project. A lot of the recent crime stories that the culture has churned up seem to share a certain grimness—think of Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos, the relentless open-endedness of that deception, the number of people she had to fool, the creeping paranoia, the gradual, inevitable nightmare of walls closing in. Compared with that slow horror, there’s something downright sunny about a plot in which all you have to do is send an email, or dig up a suitcase, and your millions simply appear. Wouldn’t it be great if all your problems could be resolved at once, and you barely even had to put on pants? As if you could just send a Venmo request to the universe? I guess the crooks I find most inspiring are the ones who think crime should be convenient.

I don’t want to make any overly grandiose claims for The Legend of Cocaine Island, but I will say that having viewed it in the aftermath of the delivery of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, I came to see it as a totalizing referendum on the nature of American democracy itself. Who hasn’t been waiting for a single, magical, effortless solution to all our problems over the past couple of years? Maybe I was encouraged in this direction by Legend’s not-exactly-light-handed attempts to tie its story to Major U.S. Themes. This is very much a movie in which a shot of some guys digging for a lost suitcase filled with cocaine can be accompanied by “God Bless America” played on a fife. But the more I watched Rodney and his squad of hapless dirtbags blundering toward the imaginary golden moment of vindication and success—the moment when all the absurdities and injustices of their lives would fall away, and they could finally live in a world that made sense to them, a world whose dunes they would roam joyfully on their three-wheelers—the more I felt that I, too, had been wandering on a beach, having forgotten to pack my shovel, hoping to stumble across the United States Constitution.

Anyway, my review of The Legend of Cocaine Island is that if you think you would like a movie called The Legend of Cocaine Island, you will definitely like this movie, and if you think you would not like a movie called The Legend of Cocaine Island, this is possibly not the film to change your mind. I liked it. It’s loud, fast, tacky, vulgar, funny, mildly exploitative, and full of shots of marching bands playing in slow motion for some reason. Narratively, and also stylistically, and kind of also morally, it reminded me of a version of I, Tonya in which none of the characters were talented. But it’s a fun 90 minutes. Rodney’s trip to the island might not have gone as planned, but after all, it wasn’t a total waste. You could get five-pound lobsters at the hotel.