CLOSE ON THE HEELS of Traffic, Ted Demme's Blow has the unenviable task of following Steven Soderbergh's multiple Oscar-winning study of the North American drug trade. It offers almost as many characters and covers a much broader swath of recent history, but centers its story on only one man: George Jung, a real-life smuggler now in prison—from which his character narrates the film in voice-over. Although he starts out as a mellow Southern California pot dealer in the late '60s, George (Johnny Depp) graduates to the more lucrative cocaine trade after an early '70s prison stint; then his fortunes explode. Still, though the stakes and dangers increase, George masks his ambitions with an ever-friendly demeanor.
directed by Ted Demme with Johnny Depp, Pen鬯pe Cruz, Rachel Griffiths, and Ray Liotta opens April 6 at Meridian 16, Varsity, and others
"It's not enough," says our hero of penny-ante dope deals. "I don't ever want to be poor," he pouts in a flashback to his idyllic blue-collar Boston childhood. There, with a hardworking, loving father (Ray Liotta) and money-grubbing harridan mother (Rachel Griffiths), George's conflicts and neuroses are laid out patly for his future undoing. As the only child of a troubled marriage, he'll invariably end up replicating the same unhappy domestic pattern—the only question is when.
Previously the director of Monument Avenue and The Ref, Demme manages to forestall Blow's predetermined melodrama for a while, thanks mainly to his production designers and star. The film works best in the more distant past, with Depp looking like a member of the Byrds with his bangs and '60s costume. His array of sunglasses alone describes 25 years of fashion history, during which time he shifts from lace-up shirts to '80s Members Only jackets. With his tresses long and blond, resplendent in a white leisure suit, striding purposefully through an airport with two red Samsonites full of coke, '70s George is an undeniably dashing figure. Blow effectively communicates the illicit lure of easy cash, easy women, and easy consciences.
THE INEVITABLE PROBLEM for George is that his commerce is bound to collide with his conscience. The latter moral development coincides with the birth of his daughter, born of a Colombian wife (All the Pretty Horses' Pen鬯pe Cruz) who secures him to the Medellin mob. George is protected, but only to a point. Colleagues could betray or murder him, with only his father's support a constant.
Moreover, since his narration is in the past tense, George's tale always signals his eventual, unavoidable fall. Blow isn't tragic, since George hardly qualifies as a heroic figure. ("I'm great at what I do," he boasts.) Instead, in its grinding obviousness, pathos, and sentimentalism, Blow seems as much a dated throwback as coke itself. Put simply, we've done the drug and seen the movie too many times before. Never mind Traffic; GoodFellas, Scarface, and even Rush have already covered the same terrain to much better effect.
Perhaps Demme sensed that about his heavy-handed script and overfamiliar source material. (Jung appeared on the excellent October 2000 Frontline "Drug Wars" series; Bruce Porter's book Blow came out in '93.) Blow jazzes up the tired narrative with some camera stunts and effects, which seem desperate and overused. Circular tracking shots, sudden freeze frames, and a montage of Polaroidlike stills enliven the film to a point, but the golden oldies soundtrack kills the vibe. Then there's the ill-used cast, including Run Lola Run's Franka Potente as a girlfriend, Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) as a dealer, and poor Griffiths—as Depp's mother?! Easing nicely into character roles, Liotta comes off best among supporting players.
In the end, the disappointing Blow is about as cutting edge as Steely Dan at the Grammys. Wanting to be hip but hopelessly square, it's heady, evanescent, and insubstantial—like the drug itself. At a time when even crack seems like old news, who'd have thought that George's "disco shit" could inspire such nostalgia?