(director: Ted Demme; screenwriters: from Bruce Porter’s biography on Jung/David McKenna/Nick Cassavetes; cinematographer: Ellen Kuras; editor: Kevin Tent; cast: Johnny Depp (George Jung), Penelope Cruz (Mirtha), Jordi Molla (Diego), Franka Potente (Barbara), Rachel Griffiths (Ermine Jung), Ray Liotta (Fred Jung), Ethan Suplee (Tuna), Paul Reubens (Derek Foreal), Max Perlich (Kevin Dulli), Cliff Curtis (Pablo Escobar), Lori L. Bailey (Kristina Sunshine Jung), Emma Roberts (Kristina, as a young adult); Runtime: 119; New Line Cinema; 2001)
“The movie plays it real safe, as the only users the audience sees are the flashy Hollywood types that no one cares about.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Blow is a slang term for cocaine. The gauche wardrobe and fancy haircuts are part of the flashy drug scene and the film’s attempt to capture the real look of the druggie scene. Johnny Depp plays George Jung, whose rags-to-riches true story as a drug smuggler is chronicled in a stylishly amoral, sympathetic and lighthearted way by director Ted Demme. Jung is now serving a long stretch in a Federal prison. His hedonistic journey through the marijuana years of the 1960s and 1970s and the disco cocaine years of the 1980s and 1990s, is a sad reminder of the way the pop culture scene had its darker side. The highs from “Blow” come mostly from the colorful fashion show it parades before us and Depp’s brilliantly nuanced performance, as he shows off his inscrutability and his swagger, where he challenges us to be sympathetic to him even if he’s a lowlife drug dealer and an uninteresting character, whose selfish dream is all about himself accumulating money and material happiness.
There was not much else to get off on, as “Blow” didn’t have the script or the kind of direction needed to blow one away. It played up in a big way that it was bringing you to the historical places where the drug scene was happening, as Jung was the American who established a link between Pablo Escobar’s Colombian drug cartel and the unloading of the addictive stuff in the U.S.. In a voiceover, Jung mentions that most cocaine users during the ’70s and ’80s (85%) used Escobar’s product. The movie plays it real safe, as the only users the audience sees are the flashy Hollywood types that no one cares about.
Demme makes these drug runners into celebrated folk heroes, who are the “in” people in Hollywood and on the college campus (which, unfortunately, seems to be true to a certain extent). “Blow” suffered because it was too simplistic in its storytelling, in its nonjudgmental stance on drugs, and in shamelessly pulling the audience to the side of the nice guy drug dealer, George Jung. It doesn’t even have the will of another recent drug trafficking film, “Traffic,” to even spend a moment worrying about the consequences of hard drugs. For this uncritical film, the drug dealers might as well just be considered risk-taking businessmen and the rush they get is a business one. But the biggest bust about “Blow,” is that it’s just not a good film to get off on. If cocaine was not the subject matter, this film would be boring (and it probably wouldn’t have been made).
It opens in George’s Weymouth, Mass., hometown where it shows his hard working but unsuccessful plumber father, the kind-hearted Fred Jung (Liotta), and his materialistic, backbiting mother (Griffiths), clashing over money matters. These money quarrels left a deep impression on the young George, and his father’s bankruptcy became a bitter pill for the family to swallow. George swears he will never be poor like his old man, someone he really liked but never respected. He felt his pop was foolish to think that money was unreal.
When of adult age, in 1968, George rushes offto Manhattan Beach, Calif., with his boyhood friend Tuna (Suplee). The place is populated by airline stewardesses and all sorts of groovy cats. In this free-spirited atmosphere, where pot is in, George hooks up with a lovely stewardess named Barbara (Franka Potente) and she hooks him up with the one supplying the pot to the kids on the beach, the homosexual hairdresser Derek Foreal (Reubens). They all go partners in the pot business and business is so good they expand and ship their top-notch merchandise to the East Coast, as Barbara acts as a courier and hometown pal, Kevin Dulli (Perlich), moves the stuff for them there.
George feels good about himself because of his new wealth and visits his sulking parents, showing off Barbara and her diamond engagement ring. But his folks are not pleased with his career moves and do not make him feel good about himself, even though he says things are perfect.
George soon gets busted in Chicago and is looking at 5 years prison time, but skips when bailed out. Barbara suddenly dies from an illness and his life seems shattered. Returning to his folks house after not seeing them for some time while on the run, George’s mother turns him into the cops telling him that it’s for his own good so that he can straighten out his life. Evidently, some people have the wrong opinion that jail time can rehabilitate. In George’s case his stay in Danbury, a federal prison, helped him graduate to big-time drug dealing, as his cellmate was Diego (Spanish actor Jordi Molla) who will introduce him on his release to Colombian cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar. This leads to George being the U.S. franchise for the Escobar drug cartel.
Next comes enormous wealth, a thirty million dollar bank account in Noriega’s Panama bank, and a beautiful Colombian trophy wife, Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), who gleefully snorts cocaine while pregnant. Mirtha tells George: “I gave up smoking.” But all’s not well in paradise. George’s parents are disappointed in him and not impressed with his Florida mansion or his many luxury sports cars. So George tries to put all his love into his young daughter Kristina (Lori L. Bailey), but to no avail.
George is too sweet for this business and he keeps trusting the wrong people, as he runs into one betrayal after another and his life goes downhill. He’s betrayed by all his drug pals and loved ones: he is jailed; his mother refuses to see him; his wife divorces him; and, his daughter has never visited him in jail. But who really cares about George and that he seems to have aged considerably and his blotched face shows the pathetic life he led; and,on top of that, he has lost some of his marbles! George failed to be a worthwhile character for us to care about him. This film is just another blip in a long line of unimportant drug related films. Really… the best thing that could be said, is that it doesn’t preach to us.
REVIEWED ON 4/14/2001 GRADE: C