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Blow   D+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ted Demme
Writers: Nick Cassavetes, David McKenna (based on the book by Bruce Porter)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ray Liotta, Franka Potente, Paul Reubens, Jordi Molla, Rachel Griffiths, Ethan Suplee.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

It's a mistake to think that recent movies that chart the drug problem in our country will have any serious impact other than to reinforce the notion that drugs are bad, mm'kay? Steven Soderbergh's Traffic amounted to a half dozen episodes of Miami Vice crammed together vérité style, but at least it was better than Darren Aronofsky's irresponsible shock tactics in the vastly overrated Requiem for a Dream. Director Ted Demme (Jonathan's nephew) jumps into the fray with Blow, an eagerly anticipated Johnny Depp vehicle documenting cocaine's rise as a glamour drug in the midst of the turbulent 70's.

For all you history buffs, George Jung (Depp) was the first American smuggler who made deals with the Colombian cartel of Pablo Escobar (scary Cliff Curtis, Three Kings). He grew up in small town New England to an oppressive mother (Rachel Griffiths) and a poor schulub of a father (Ray Liotta, who seems to be ever present in mainstream cinema these days) who worked hard his whole life but never made ends meet. As you can see, the seeds are planted in Mr. Jung even as a small child that copious amounts of wealth will equal happiness. The American Dream.

Movies become part of the problem, though. Requiem for a Dream transformed the drug experience into a Grimm's Fairy Tale nightmare ("Don't do drugs or the wicked witch will chop off your arm and give it to some dumb southern sheriff!"). Blow skirts too far in the opposite direction, glamorizing George Jung's early exploits as he enormously profits from selling weed on the beaches of California, then uses his connections to smuggle dope in from Columbia in secret stashes or on private flights. The result is flashy cars, vast haciendas, joyous parties, beautiful people everywhere, a sexy hot tamale for a wife (played by Penelope Cruz, an emaciated grotesque who here embodies some horrifying Latina stereotypes -- loud, greedy, lazy, turncoat, and voluptuous).

Wait a minute here -- we're encouraged to bask in this one moron's success story in much the same way Paul Thomas Anderson strained to get us to love Marky Mark in Boogie Nights, through a series of plot mechanizations that are as thin as they are obvious. Yet people seem to fall for it. We like George Jung because he's played by affable Johnny Depp (in a superb performance, as always), but we're never allowed to see the consequences of his actions. No wonder we feel sorry for him when he gets turned in to the cops by his hated witchy-poo mother (Griffiths, overacting in yet another of Blow's Lady Macbeth female counterparts). I'm sure we'd feel sorry for James Wilkes Booth's arrest if we weren't privy to the knowledge that he shot Abe Lincoln. Poor Wilksie! Blow works the same way. We only see the good times.

George Jung is later revealed to love his little daughter, the only thing that keeps him going. Instead of establishing the family unit in a realistic, believably messy way, screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes only mine it for "dramatic" potential. Jung is driven by the weak father and castrating mother, thus in his future he is struggling to prove his familial worth with the hostile missus (Cruz). "If I pull off one last score, maybe my daughter and I can escape to sunny California together," is the driving force in the final third of Blow, but do we really want her spending quality time with our protagonist, whose seemingly only skill is selling drugs?

To compensate for our soft-shell dimwit of a protagonist, Blow incorporates a hot soundtrack and gleaming montages to create the illusion that things are moving fast in the lugubrious two hour running time. Toss in a Bobcat Goldthwait cameo and Paul "Pee Wee" Reubens slinking through a girlish gay repertoire as Jung's dealer (if you weren't offended enough by the Latin American stereotypes), all the better to disguise that very little of consequence actually happens. George Jung starts out a loser, he earns some money, he loses it, then he goes back to being a loser. Where's the reversal of fortune?

For all Demme's attempts to remind us that this was based on the life story of Mr. Jung (closing on a freeze frame of the actual man, serving time in the pen until 2025), Blow feels like a "movie" in the worst sense of the word: irresponsible, glossed up, romanticized. Bottom line, kids: It only goes to show that in Tinseltown, you can film a walking sack of shit and call it a legend. No one will blink. It's movies like Blow which make me happy that Spy Kids is doing so well.

Review published 04.11.2001.

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