While Traffic has made a serious contribution to the nation’s War on Drugs debate, Ted Demme‘s new movie, Blow, starring Johnny Depp, makes the case for drugs as America’s favorite national pastime, food for the questing, pioneering American head. Like Traffic, the film examines the drug business from top to bottom, through the Horatio Alger–like rise of George Jung, a real-life drug smuggler who graduated from selling nickel bags of pot to dealing with the scariest figures in the Colombian cocaine industry.
In 1968, Jung moves to Southern California and discovers beach life, surf cuties and marijuana. With his stewardess girlfriend Barbara (Run Lola Run‘s Franka Potente, looking unnervingly like Molly Ringwald) and his gay hairdresser friend Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens), he starts moving major weight cross-country. He’s jailed, but moves into the more profitable cocaine-import business and becomes partners with the Medellin cartel‘s murderous, charismatic Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). The stakes become exponentially higher as the pimp-tailored Jung becomes a fugitive narco-millionaire, marrying Penelope Cruz’s bratty drug princess, building up a Tony Montana–level of tolerance for his own product and, in due course, finding out just how far there is to fall.
Demme, hitherto a fairly restrained director, has here done what many excitable young male filmmakers dream of doing: combined the sartorial and narcotic excess of Boogie Nights with the energy of the extended “Last Day” sequence of GoodFellas. Indeed, without those two movies Blow almost certainly wouldn‘t exist, so anxious is Demme to replicate their sheer visual kineticism. Like a less gifted version of Scorsese or Anderson, Demme gleefully ransacks Hollywood’s technical toy closet, digging out the Steadicam, splitting his screen, working with different stocks, and editing the results at a frenzied pace. To depict 20 years of loudly changing fashions he even hired Boogie Nights‘ costume designer, and his breathless editing and camerawork are heavily indebted to Scorsese. None of which necessarily detracts from Blow’s ability to entertain, although the sheer scale of the debt undermines Demme‘s achievement considerably.
Blow is high on the thrill of being young, sexy and beyond the law — more specifically, of being male and wired to the fingertips on adrenaline and recklessness. Jung’s role models aren‘t killers and criminals but pirates and cowboy outlaws, with the still wide-open drug trade as his Spanish Main, his Wild West. It’s also a boys‘-own movie from start to finish: Although it’s not exactly “No Girls Allowed” in Demme‘s tree house of perpetual adolescence, the women do take a distinctly secondary place to the fellas. Barbara is a saintly SoCal bunny-girl atop that pedestal reserved for lost true loves, while Cruz’s Mirtha is a Latin-spitfire caricature, as easy to dislike as Jung‘s shrill, neurotic mother (Rachel Griffiths). There’s a void where these characters should be, one that makes it all the harder to focus on the film‘s better-written men: Reubens’ campy, party-hearty Derek, and Ray Liotta as Jung‘s father (an explicit, perhaps reckless nod to GoodFellas). Depp meanwhile ably conveys Jung’s all-American innocence and criminal knowingness, but never manages to make you like him or care about his fate.
Jung got in at the dawn of the modern drug trade, working with friends and without guns at a time when the mechanisms of interdiction were comparatively primitive and sentences relatively light. He moved from benign marijuana to soul-stealing cocaine at a time when people were conducting heroic research into what would happen if they shoved the stuff up their snouts for years on end. Blow captures what it must have felt like to be in one‘s prime and successful in a business which, despite being a crime, felt briefly more like a countercultural public service. Beyond that Demme somehow fails to imbue Jung’s story with any real pathos or sense of moral consequence. He and his screenwriters dodge the thorny issues underpinning their characters‘ amorality in order to get back to larking about with fast cars, drug bimbos, gold coke spoons and gigantic spliffs. If as much thought had been expended on character and consequences as was lavished on bell-bottom diameters, collar widths and soundtrack selection, Blow might have been a richer, more intelligent experience, and much more Demme’s movie than a carbon copy of other people‘s.