Stepped-on Blow

Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Paul Reubens, Franka Potente and Ray Liotta. Directed by Ted Demme.
Rated 2.0

The promos for Blow may give the impression of a rollicking combination of Boogie Nights and Traffic, but the actual onscreen results are a dreary stew of facile docudrama, campy nostalgia and maudlin moralizing, albeit with occasional bouts of passable rollicking. Even with a story based on the actual career of a convicted drug dealer, the thing comes off as canned goods, at best.

A good cast makes it bearable, more or less, but noteworthy efforts by Paul Reubens, Ray Liotta, Max Perlich and Franka Potente are not enough to fully cover for the shabby dramatics in a story that pretends to cover three decades of its characters’ lives.

The story of George Jung (played here by Johnny Depp) is a rise-and-fall saga of coked-up capitalism and a zonked-out soap opera in the rags-to-riches (and back again) mode. Initially Depp seems a good choice for the part, but too often the film makes him look like little more than a clueless derelict at a hopelessly uncool costume party.

The pros and cons of the film are particularly well summed up in Liotta’s role as George’s all-forgiving father. The good news is that the father’s supportive affection for his criminally industrious son provides a provocative twist of irony and insight in an otherwise simplistic take on family values. The bad news is that, even with the lavish efforts of the make-up department, it’s well nigh impossible to believe that Liotta and Depp are father and son.

Reubens makes a strikingly swishy non-Pee Wee Herman impression in a key secondary role, and Potente (who galloped through the title role in Run Lola Run) has the good fortune to play a pot-smoking stewardess who dies (offscreen) before the proceedings plunge into full ‘70s drag.

Penelope Cruz, as the second woman in George’s life, flounders in shallow posturing, and the talented Rachel Griffiths is grotesquely (and inexplicably) one-dimensional as George’s harridan mother.

It’s too bad. George Jung’s story is a kind of perverted Horatio Alger tale for the Republicanized America of Reagan, the Bushes and (yes) Clinton. The story of the drug business is crucial to the story of post-modern America, but even when it’s strutting like Keith Richards, Blow is really groveling at the altar of Nancy Reagan.