Hello, what's this? Why, could it be another cautionary tale from Hollywood about recreational drugs being -- alert the media! -- not particularly good for people? (If only they could try the same with guns. Messrs. Heston and Silver: You awake yet?) Indeed, with Blow, director Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls, Monument Ave.) has set us up with a morality tale in which the moral is obvious from the start and there's very little to do but sit back and enjoy the ride. While the project is galaxies away from inventive, it's definitely a cool and crafty pastiche of Scarface mingled with Goodfellas, wrapped in the polyester playfulness of That '70s Show. Whether this description serves as a beacon or a warning is up to you.
To get into the guts of Blow, we'll visit a Chicago courtroom in 1972, where semi-oblivious George Jung (Johnny Depp) sits slouching with nary a care in the world as he is convicted of smuggling 660 pounds of marijuana into the country. "I crossed an imaginary line with a bunch of plants," he mumbles, genuinely curious as to what the big deal could be. Bemused yet firm, the matronly judge (Dorothy Lyman) smiles as Jung lets fly with a Dr. Seuss-style rap about his relative innocence, then she sentences him to five years. It's just one way in which the hapless entrepreneur makes good on his promise never to end up like his parents, and, as the workings of his clunky psyche are unveiled, we'll be seeing plenty more.
The parents in question -- first introduced in a warmly nostalgic, Ward-and-June prologue, then quickly blended into a richer, unhappier portrait -- are Ermine and Fred Jung (Rachel Griffiths and Ray Liotta), a couple of well-intentioned squares who inadvertently produce a major-league dealer. From his Boston-bound childhood, young George (Jesse James) observes his father sliding into bankruptcy. He also grows increasingly alienated from his mother, whose selfish flights from the home leave an indelible imprint upon her boy. Basically, between Dad's spiraling workaholism and Mom's cold absence, the kid grows up too fast: "I don't care about ice cream," he exclaims. "What are we going to do?"
Perhaps taking his cues from the Doors (as Demme takes some of his from Oliver Stone), George grows up and hits the beaches of Southern California for fun in the sun with his corpulent best friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee, from Kevin Smith's universe). In the first of many helpful and illustrative montage sequences, we learn that all the bikini-clad honeys are employed as stewardesses, and George eventually selects one, Barbara Buckley (Franka Potente, nearly unrecognizable after Run Lola Run) to be his Summer of Love squeeze. But there's still no cash flow. Leaping to the rescue is Tuna, who sets the wheels of George's career in motion with the seemingly innocuous question, "You remember wondering what we were going to do for money, being that we don't want to get jobs and whatnot?"
Although Blow is "based on a true story," as well as the book of the same name by Bruce Porter, one must marvel at the editing job screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes must have done on the life of the real George Jung (whose confined terrestrial existence for the next few years seems unlikely to change). As is necessitated by the constraints of the medium -- running times and bladder capacities and so forth -- a lot of information must be compressed into tight scenes, and some of the serendipity here is downright miraculous. Almost immediately after George and Tuna hook up with a flamboyant hairdresser and pot source named, quite antithetically, Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens in shag-drag, sort of a Pee-wee Vermin), they're all off to Mexico with accomplice Kevin Dulli (Max Perlich) to transform smuggling into a fun-filled fiesta for the whole family.
Surprisingly, it takes a long, long time for the shadows to creep in on George's fantasy existence -- if indeed they ever fully reach him -- and this is where the film swerves wildly away from the hard-core significance of, say, Traffic. While many may snort at this happy-go-lucky tone, Demme and his crew have crafted the project to feel altogether less preachy and more generous than Soderbergh's cliché-laden juggernaut. Because George is not wicked but merely -- like his country -- confused and absurdly ambitious, he's relatable, winning his own lottery through hard work and hard play.
Of course -- given that the real Jung is more or less a dead ringer for Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx -- a lot of this enchantment has to do with Depp's cosmetic appeal, which the movie shamelessly milks. But Depp is also in characteristically fine acting form, from his somber voice-over to his credible surfing of life's ups and downs. Ironically, while it further cements his reputation as America's première channeler of adorable ne'er-do-wells -- Ed Wood, Hunter S. Thompson, even Ichabod Crane -- this also may be the project that finally opens him up to subtlety. Here, he's such a human drug dealer that he doesn't even load his gun. Viva la Revolución!
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Once he hooks up with Colombian hustler Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla), it's all downhill or uphill from there, depending upon your perspective. After George lands 50 kilos of the pure white powder and becomes the doorway to the California elite, all heaven and hell break loose, including frightening encounters with villain/humanitarian Pablo Escobar (the incredibly flexible Cliff Curtis). As he changes the way America got high, George likewise gets high with a saucy Colombian brat named Mirtha (Penelope Cruz, mirthless and merciless), who ends up as his wife and the bane of his existence.
And here's where it all clicks, where George's epic and miserable trajectory resonates with truth: He simply forgets that a girl who likes to be slapped around in a dog collar and snorts the white stuff like a wild sow is probably not ideal matrimony material. It may be too ham-fisted for the tastes of some, but the script posits that George's problem isn't really about drugs or illegal business, but with embracing a gentle femininity. He's drawn to Mirtha because she's hot, but also because she's utterly rotten to him . . . kinda like Mom.
It's unfortunate timing for Rachel Griffiths -- what with next year's Oscars a year away and all -- but in Blow she has already turned in an undeniable bid for Best Supporting Actress. Curt and demanding yet clearly at odds with some soul-severing inner conflict, Ermine is -- like her name -- all about a deceptively soft exterior concealing the heart of a weasel. When one reflects upon her impact on George, combined with that of Mirtha, the portrait gains a load of depth. And if anyone needs further convincing about Griffiths' performance, consider that she's actually younger than Depp.
Co-produced with typically reactionary zeal by Denis Leary, Blow wants to get in your face and tell you the real story, man, but, luckily, the unassuming tone nips any overheated exposé triteness in the bud. The only area where it really drags is when it becomes almost ruthlessly poignant, basically whenever George and Mirtha's daughter Kristina (Emma Roberts young, James King grown up) appears onscreen to symbolize good values and hope and stuff like that. That aside, there's never a dull moment in Blow, but, cinematically speaking, there's never a mesmerizing one, either; it's basically your above-average nice drug movie. Its dizzy head may be in the clouds, but at least its heart is in the right place.