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A Kinder, Gentler Dope Fiend

In Ted Demme's Blow, Johnny Depp summons an American snowstorm

Hello, what's this? Why, could it be another cautionary tale from Hollywood about recreational drugs' being -- alert the media! -- not particularly good for people? (If only they could try the same with guns. Messrs. Heston and Silver: You awake yet?) Indeed, with Blow, director Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls, Monument Ave.) has set us up with a morality tale in which the moral is obvious from the start, and there's very little to do but sit back and enjoy the ride. Although the project is galaxies away from inventive, it's definitely a cool and crafty pastiche of Scarface mingled with GoodFellas, wrapped in the polyester playfulness of That '70s Show. Whether this description serves as a beacon or a warning is up to you.

To get into the guts of Blow, we'll visit a Chicago courtroom in 1972, where semioblivious George Jung (Johnny Depp) sits slouching with nary a care in the world as he is convicted of smuggling 660 pounds of marijuana into the country. "I crossed an imaginary line with a bunch of plants," he mumbles, genuinely curious as to what the big deal could be. Bemused yet firm, the matronly judge (Dorothy Lyman) smiles as Jung lets fly with a Dr. Seuss-style rap about his relative innocence, and then she sentences him to five years. It's just one way in which the hapless entrepreneur makes good on his promise never to end up like his parents, and, as the workings of his clunky psyche are unveiled, we'll be seeing plenty more.

The parents in question -- first introduced in a warmly nostalgic Ward-and-June prologue, then quickly blended into a richer, unhappier portrait -- are Ermine and Fred Jung (Rachel Griffiths and Ray Liotta), a couple of well-intentioned squares who inadvertently produce a major-league dealer. From his Boston-bound childhood, young George (Jesse James) observes his father sliding into bankruptcy. ("Money doesn't matter," declaims the foundering father. "It only seems like it does.") He also grows increasingly alienated from his mother, whose selfish flights from the home leave an indelible imprint on her boy (more on that later). Basically, between Dad's spiraling workaholism and Mom's cold absence, the kid grows up too fast: "I don't care about ice cream," he exclaims. "What are we going to do?"

From his somber voice-over to his credible surfing of life's ups and downs, Johnny Depp is in fine form in Blow.
From his somber voice-over to his credible surfing of life's ups and downs, Johnny Depp is in fine form in Blow.

Perhaps taking his cues from the Doors (as Demme takes some of his from Oliver Stone), George grows up and hits the beaches of Southern California for fun in the sun with his corpulent best friend, Tuna (Ethan Suplee, from Kevin Smith's universe). In the first of many helpful and illustrative montage sequences, we learn that all the bikini-clad honeys are employed as stewardesses, and George eventually selects one, Barbara Buckley (Franka Potente, nearly unrecognizable after Run Lola Run), to be his Summer of Love squeeze. But there's still no cash flow. Leaping to the rescue is Tuna, who sets the wheels of George's career in motion with the seemingly innocuous question "You remember wondering what we were going to do for money, being that we don't want to get jobs and whatnot?"

Although Blow is "based on a true story," as well as the book of the same name by Bruce Porter, one must marvel at the editing job screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes must have done on the life of the real George Jung (whose confined terrestrial existence for the next few years seems unlikely to change). As is necessitated by the constraints of the medium -- running times and bladder capacities and so forth -- a lot of information must be compressed into tight scenes, and some of the serendipity here is downright miraculous. Almost immediately after George and Tuna hook up with a flamboyant hairdresser and pot source named, quite antithetically, Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens in shag-drag, sort of a Pee-wee Vermin), they're all off to Mexico with accomplice Kevin Dulli (Max Perlich) to transform smuggling into a fun-filled fiesta for the whole family.

Surprisingly, it takes a long, long time for the shadows to creep in on George's fantasy existence -- if indeed they ever fully reach him -- and this is where the film swerves wildly away from the hardcore significance of, say, Traffic. Although many may snort at this happy-go-lucky tone, Demme and his crew have crafted the project to feel altogether less preachy and more generous than Soderbergh's cliché-laden juggernaut, resulting in an acutely philanthropic movie. Because George is not wicked but merely -- like his country -- confused and absurdly ambitious, he's easy to relate to, winning his own lottery through hard work and hard play. Watching him cavort in the sun or fuss with crates full of money ("We're gonna need a bigger boat!"), one almost forgets that he's in any way a criminal.

Of course -- given that the real Jung is more or less a dead ringer for Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx -- a lot of this enchantment has to do with Depp's cosmetic appeal, which the movie shamelessly milks. It will be interesting to see whether there's an increased level of appreciation for drug dealers among impressionable young women after Blow makes its rounds, because the actor is portrayed here as almost every kind of golden child imaginable. Starting off as John Denver, he (with the help of hairstylist Candace Neal) wends his way through the locks and tresses of (in no particular order) Meat Loaf, Gregg Allman, David Lee Roth, Jimmy Buffet, Suzanne Somers and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, landing, quite disturbingly, on a shocking likeness of Eddie Money.

Fortunately there's much more to Depp's work here than a series of wig changes, and from his somber voice-over to his credible surfing of life's ups and downs, the actor is in characteristically fine form. (He also seems relieved to be appearing in a project in which he gets to show off his chain-smoking skills.) Ironically, although it further cements his reputation as America's premier channeler of adorable ne'er-do-wells -- following cuddly mockeries of Ed Wood and Hunter S. Thompson, as well as interpretations of "Cry-Baby" and Ichabod Crane, among many others -- this also may be the project that finally opens him up to subtlety. Here, he's such a humane drug dealer that he doesn't even load his gun. Viva la revolución!

While we're on that subject, Blow really does make a strong statement about the revolutionary effects George Jung had on the America of the '70s and '80s, and once he hooks up with Colombian hustler Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla), it's all downhill or uphill from there, depending on your perspective. After George lands 50 kilos of the pure white powder and becomes the doorway to the California elite, all heaven and hell break loose, including frightening encounters with villain/humanitarian Pablo Escobar (the incredibly flexible Cliff Curtis). As he changes the way America got high, George likewise gets high with a saucy Colombian brat named Mirtha (Penelope Cruz, mirthless and merciless), who ends up as his wife and the bane of his existence.

And here's where it all clicks, where George's epic and miserable trajectory resonates with truth: He simply forgets that a girl who likes to be slapped around in a dog collar and snorts the white stuff like a wild sow is probably not ideal matrimonial material. It may be too ham-fisted for the tastes of some, but the script posits that George's problem isn't really about drugs or illegal business but with embracing a gentle femininity. He's drawn to Mirtha because she's hot but also because she's utterly rotten to him ... kinda like Mom.

It's unfortunate timing for Rachel Griffiths -- what with next year's Oscars a year away and all -- but in Blow she has already turned in an undeniable bid for Best Supporting Actress. Curt and demanding yet clearly at odds with some soul-severing inner conflict, Ermine is -- like her name -- all about a deceptively soft exterior concealing the heart of a weasel. When one reflects on her impact on George, combined with that of Mirtha, the portrait gains a load of depth. And if anyone needs further convincing about Griffiths' performance, consider that she's actually younger than Depp.

Co-produced with typically reactionary zeal by Denis Leary (who starred in Demme's gloriously sharp-witted first feature, The Ref), Blow wants to get in your face and tell you the real story, man, but, luckily, the unassuming tone nips any overheated exposé triteness in the bud. The only area where it really drags is when it becomes almost ruthlessly poignant, basically whenever George and Mirtha's daughter Kristina (Emma Roberts young, James King grownup) appears onscreen to symbolize good values and hope and stuff like that. That aside, there's never a dull moment in Blow, but, cinematically speaking, there's never a mesmerizing one, either; it's basically your above-average nice drug movie. Its dizzy head may be in the clouds, but at least its heart is in the right place.

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