Blow, directed by Ted Demme, is a good-looking, sprawling depiction of cocaine smuggler George Jung’s life. More or less another homage to Martin Scorsese, it has some flaws, but it also has much to offer.
Demme creates a decent Goodfellas vibe (rock soundtrack, gloomy narration, the presence of Ray Liotta), but while directors like Paul Thomas Anderson back up their Scorsese-like offerings with nearly perfect, original scripts (Boogie Nights), Demme is playing with a screenplay that is sometimes too simple and misguided, too black and white.
That said, it’s still good to look at and well-acted in many parts. The story begins with Jung in his younger years, dealing pot on California beaches and college campuses. It then takes us through Jung’s rise to power as one of the masterminds behind nearly two-thirds of the cocaine being smuggled into the United States during the drug’s initial explosion.
Jung will fall, and fall hard, and that is where the film gets a bit soft. Rather than showing the rigors of drug addiction, or displaying how Jung’s selfishness ruined lives, Blow gets melodramatic as Jung loses the companionship of his young daughter due to his mistakes. This element of the story is moving, but insubstantial.
Demme manages to make us feel very sorry for Jung and, truth be told, I’m sure there are plenty of folks in the drug trade with big hearts, but something about this film feels a bit too white-washed. Oddly enough, it’s the final still picture of the real-life Jung before the credits, his face ravaged by his addiction, that is the movie’s most painful moment.
Johnny Depp is good as Jung, utilizing a distracting, droning accent that you eventually get used to. Depp embodies the character with enough pleasantries to make him one of those semi-likable villains that you can tolerate for two hours (like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas). Making a notorious drug smuggler like Jung so sympathetic isn’t necessarily a direction I agree with (he’s basically just a good boy doing the wrong things, according to Demme), but that’s not Depp’s fault, and it’s to his credit that he makes a character hampered by script miscalculation so memorable. Note to the person in charge of Depp’s wigs: I liked the one that gave him that Happy Days, Leather Tuscadero look.
The film’s best performance is offered by Liotta as, oddly enough, Jung’s father (Liotta is only a few years older than the 37-year-old Depp). It’s painful how Liotta’s character remains hopeful and optimistic throughout the movie, his love for his son remaining strong and true despite his chosen profession. I especially liked a quick moment where Jung has just been released from prison, and an excited Liotta emerges from a shop with a bottle of cold liquor, the glow of celebration in his eyes, oblivious to Jung’s criminal behavior on a pay phone. Kudos also go out to Paul Reubens as a drug-dealing hairdresser, Max Perlich and Jordi Molla as Jung’s partners in crime and Bobcat Goldthwait in a funny cameo.
Rachel Griffiths, who is actually younger than Depp, is miscast as his mother. Her performance feels more like caricature, a good actress trying to act old but trying too hard. Penelope Cruz is sugar-covered aluminum foil scraping a cavity as Jung’s Colombian wife—far too shrill, with no texture to her acting. Thankfully, her screen time is scarce.
Blow is proof that a movie can have flaws and still be worth watching. An opportunity for a great film is missed, but the plusses outweigh the minuses, and while that’s not high praise, it does count as a recommendation.