Movie Review: Blow
Blow starts off on a roaring cinematic high, but then it collapses into darkness and depression. And though, to some extent, that's the effect director Ted Demme wants, the movie goes too far. Demme and his screenwriters are trying something interesting: They want to make a realistic, no-holds-barred chronicle of the drug trade in the '60s and '70s -- about cocaine, the Colombian cartels and a real American dealer, George Jung (played by Johnny Depp), who helped make coke the chic hard drug of the '70s. Blow is about life in the fast lane, as told by Jung, who helped design the highway.
Though it's based on a real-life story, it's not as convincing as the fictional Traffic. Despite this movie's high-energy, rock-'em-sock-'em trailers, it's a real disappointment: too hasty, too scattered and superficial, and, in the end, disappointingly sappy and sentimental. As for Depp, he often seems too nice to be the story's heavy-dealing drug dealer; perhaps he's trying too hard to give us Jung's viewpoint.
The movie seems to be snow-blind itself -- though there's no doubt that the life story of Jung, an East Coast kid turned California hippie who briefly conquered the pot and cocaine markets, has the potential to be a many-layered, true portrayal of the '70s cocaine wars. Done with the detail and style Martin Scorsese brought to Goodfellas and Casino -- or the pizzazz Brian De Palma gave Scarface -- it might have made a major Americana movie. But Blow, based on Bruce Porter's book, is a magnificent opportunity blown.
As his story begins, young George vows never to be a straight-arrow patsy like his honest working-class dad Fred (Ray Liotta) and heads for California's Venice Beach during the hippie era. Simply hanging out in the sun with his buddies Tuna (Ethan Suplee) and Kevin (Max Perlich), he stumbles into a lucrative pot dealership -- courtesy of his girlfriend Barbara (Franka Potente of Run Lola Run) and her fey moneyman friend Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens). Life's a beach for everyone until George gets his first comeuppance: busted for possession of a huge haul of cannabis.
In prison he meets crazed Diego Delgado (Jorgi Molla), who becomes his link to Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis), big boss of the Medellin cocaine gang. Soon, all his old pot connections become coke conduits -- minus Barbara, who dies of cancer. Ignoring the bad vibes, flying high and coked to the gills, George marries beautiful Colombian socialite Mirtha (Penelope Cruz) before experiencing a series of reversals and betrayals that leave him hanging by a thread. (The real Jung, currently in prison until 2014, was a consultant on this movie.)
It seems unlikely Blow could fail to be an instructive, exciting movie. But Demme and his writers (Nick Cassavetes and David McKenna) tip their hand too much. They go for the heartstrings too soon. Telling the story as a flashback that begins right before George's disastrous last attempt at a big score, they give us a series of fast-paced vignettes that eventually turn into a catalogue of woes. What at first seems a kind of druggie Horatio Alger tale quickly becomes a sob story, as Jung's illusory power crumbles under an onslaught of betrayals. The movie turns into a long whine, less a tale of tragic destiny than one of cocaine paranoia.
Poor George. But what of his victims? Frankly, we don't see enough of them here: those who deluded themselves that cocaine was non-addictive. (One Robert Downey Jr.-style character, perhaps played by Downey, would have helped this movie immeasurably.) Blow, which seems constructed almost like a parole plea, never suggests hard enough that George was a hard case himself. Depp has such a nice-guy empathetic persona, it's difficult to see too much of a darker side, whatever his role. So the movie's George seems more a victim of bad company -- and bad drugs -- than the author of his own highs and fate.