Blow: Ted Demme’s Crime Drama Starring Johnny Depp

Using Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling masterpiece about the porno industry, as a model, Ted Demme’s Blow is a solid but not particularly exciting epic about the rise of the cocaine subculture in America.

The story is told through the real-life figure of George Jung (who’s in prison until 2015), the first American to import the drug on a large scale. Johnny Depp gives a dominant performance as the all-American boy, who for two decades pursued the American Dream his own way, using his charisma and entrepreneurial skills to become an international drug trafficker.

Though ambitious in scope and impressive in style, Demme’s picture lacks emotional depth, strong characterization, and social resonance to belong to the league of Boogie Nights or other epic crime pictures such as Scorsese’s Casino or even De Palma’s Scarface. In the current climate of ideas, strong critical support will be necessary for New Line spring release to score beyond the mid-range numbers.

As scripted by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes, Blow employs the familiar crime-gangster format of the rise and fall of a small-town American boy, whose deprived origins and strong ambition to make it big resulted in a distorted interpretation of the American Dream, one that viewed life in sheer materialistic manner, measured by the conspicuous consumption of Lear jets, expensive cars, wild and beautiful women, and luxurious houses with servants.

Story proper begins with a flashback to George’s childhood in the 1960s Massachusetts, where he was raised by a hard-working father (Ray Liotta), who never amounted to much, and an anxious, argumentative mother (Rachel Griffiths), who left the family a number of times. George’s parents function as negative role, for he vows that no matter what it takes he’ll never to work as hard as his dad, and never worry about money as much as his mother.

His adult life begins as a happy-go-lucky California hippie, who falls in love with Barbara (played by the German actress Franka Potente), an attractive girl who introduced him to his first drug connection. Their affair takes place in a context that encourages open, liberal lifestyle filled with hedonistic joy. It’s also in these segments that George meets Derek (Paul Reubens), a gay Manhattan Beach hairdresser, who dabbles in pot before turning into a major cocaine distributor.

The first shock that life isn’t fair comes when Barbara falls victim to a fatal disease. But turning point occurs after George meets Diego Delgado (Spanish actor Jordi Molla), while in prison for an offense. It’s through Diego, who claims to be an insider in Colombia’s rising new drug trade, that George becomes interested in cocaine as big business. Later, greed and betrayal damage their friendship and partnership.

Main section depicts how George takes unbridled individualism to an extreme, living out a fantasy, no-rules lifestyle, literally breathing and eating money. The scariest chapters concern Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis), head of the Colombian drug cartels and one of history’s most feared and reviled criminals. Several scenes that depict border crossings, illicit fights, ruthless negotiations, brutal executions, and money laundering recall the contemporary drug epic, Traffic, though Blow lacks the complexity and ambiguity of Soderbergh’s movie.

Blow can’t be accused of having no narrative. In fact, McKenna and Cassavetes’ script shows too much concern for plot and not enough concern for in-depth characterizations. This is particularly so in the second half, which unfolds as a catalogue of events leading to George’s final imprisonment. Moreover, the family background is too simplistic to provide an entirely plausible explanation for George’s personality, which must have been more multifarious than the movie allows.

Framed as a cautionary fable, the tale is no doubt riveting, but something major is missing. Though the film is nonjudgmental, its central character is not engaging enough to hold the viewers’ attention, and the filmmakers have hard time eliciting compassion for George as a person who seems to have been the least likely person to become an international criminal.

Despite its grand intent, Blow is devoid of the tragic vision that made The Godfather movies or GoodFellas and Casino so compelling. The film aims to combine an intimate portrait of yearning–all his life George yearned for acceptance and love–and an epic-scale tale about the American crime culture of the past three decades, but it works most effectively as the story of a man who used ingenuity, ambition, and courage to reach the top, only to blow all of his dreams on greed. George is seen as a guy who wanted to control his destiny, to live by his rules, never to be told by parents, politicians, and the law what he could and couldn’t do. He finally realizes the devastating price of his lifestyle, when he loses the only person that matters to him–his daughter.

In Blow, George is not just a greedy drug trafficker who sees the potential profit in turning cocaine into a major industry, but a man reflecting his times. Like America itself, he journeys from the innocence of the 1960s to the decadence of the 1970s to the retribution and redemption of the 1980s, discovering the meaning of love in the hardest way.

Rendering an intelligent and subtle performance, Depp delves into the darkest space of George’s psyche as far as the script allows, but that’s not deep enough. Nonetheless, he captures well George’s dizzying rise to fame and fortune and the psychology of a man whose insider knowledge about the temptations and tribulations of a drug smuggler makes his existence edgy and risky. Depp interprets George as a modern-day pirate who didn’t believe in the validity of the political or legal system and whose vision of freedom swooped him up.

Penelope Cruz appears only in the last hour as George’s ravishing but demanding and high-living wife. Unfortunately, she gives a shrill performance in an underwritten role that calls for hysteria, excess, and profanity with no shading.