In Blow, a new film about the man who pretty much invented cocaine distribution in the United States, the protagonist somberly informs us that “drugs make you lose sight of what’s important.” If that passes for insight in your crack-smoking mind, by all means hightail it to the multiplex.
Everybody else may want to first examine the pile of clichés, sluggish storytelling and sentimental hooey that constitutes Blow, a wasted opportunity of a film from star Johnny Depp and director Ted Demme. This true story fairly demands the care and flair given to the tale of mobster Henry Hill in Goodfellas or the undercover FBI agent played by Depp in Donnie Brasco. Demme, who made the quiet comedy gem The Ref and a few lesser films, is wholly unprepared for the task, and it’s painful to watch him fail.
Blow is based on a brilliant book by journalist Bruce Porter, who acidly chronicled the dizzying rise and terrible fall of a bad kid from Massachusetts named George Jung. From his start as a small-time marijuana dealer in Manhattan Beach, he made his mark on history as America’s first big-time coke dealer.
Depp’s interpretation of Jung wanders from deal to deal with a perpetually dazed, step-slow look to him—he’s not your standard movie criminal mastermind in the Tony Montana mold. He makes an early connection with a gay hairdresser (Paul Reubens) to begin dealing grass, and he expands his operations to both coasts before getting busted. While in the pokey, he makes friends with a Colombian who turns him on to the unique business opportunity of cocaine, which was just hitting its first nostrils in North America.
Ridiculous wealth and humongous coke use ensue. So do the film’s problems. Where Porter’s book was unsentimental and direct, Demme’s film is sickeningly mawkish and sentimental. Demme portrays Jung as a simple man who made a few poor choices—all he really wanted was to take care of his daughter and live a normal life.
Well, that would be fine if it were even remotely true or interesting. As Porter so compellingly wrote (and a wonderful Frontline documentary explained a few years ago), Jung was and is a bad, somewhat dumb man. As even the movie shows, he knows right from wrong—he just doesn’t give a shit. Demme then wraps such a man in the cloak of fatherhood and expects us to feel sorry for him. Demme doesn’t realize we understand Jung is just a man—but that doesn’t make him good, and it certainly doesn’t make him sympathetic.
That’s just one of several terribly bad decisions by the screenwriters and Demme, who clearly watched Goodfellas several times but didn’t learn a thing. Blow spends almost no time focusing on the very reason Jung is significant. Instead of explaining and dramatizing the details of how Jung and Co. became the provider of 85 percent of the cocaine in the United States, we’re given a somewhat fictionalized human-interest story. Demme is so interested in making Jung into a movie character that his resume is forgotten.
Blow also isn’t much to look at. Demme has never been an imaginative director, but he’s also never shot a movie that demands the creativity Blow would require to become memorable. His idea of cinematography is to shine a spotlight on George when he discovers he’s about to be busted for the final time. It’s not exactly the tracking shot into the Copacabana. Like the film in its entirety, this moment demands an inspiration that Demme just doesn’t have.
Depp does his usual fine, low-key job as George, though he spends the entire movie in ugly wigs that don’t seem to fit. Penelope Cruz, as his Colombian wife, is shrill and uninvolving in a one-note part consisting mostly of dubbed lines. Three principals make an impression: Australian Rachel Griffiths as George’s mother, complete with a thick Bahstahn accent; Ray Liotta as George’s downtrodden dad; and Reubens, who does a gay hairdresser take on Pee Wee that’s actually quite clever.
It’s infinitely more frustrating to watch such a quality cast and outstanding subject matter turned into a poor movie than it is to yawn your way through, say, Exit Wounds. Blow simply misses the point. The film’s final 30 minutes—when it should be building to a resolution, or at least an interesting take on the drug culture or the lure of wealth—is a series of sappy vignettes in which Jung laments his life and longs for the love of his daughter. Jung is interesting because of what he did with cocaine, not what he didn’t do with the rest of his life. Anybody who thinks otherwise must be snorting something.
Blow (R) H1/2 Directed by Ted Demme. Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Paul Reubens.