Blow (review)

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“Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a drug dealer.”

Okay, so maybe Blow doesn’t go this far. But it’s clear that director Ted Demme really, really likes Goodfellas. Likes it, but doesn’t understand it, maybe, because Blow fails to do for drug dealers what Goodfellas did for mobsters. Instead of giving us an unvarnished, unsentimental view of a notorious criminal element — one that leaves us free to decide for ourselves how its subject should be viewed — Blow tries to twist us into pitying poor George Jung, who helped build Pablo Escobar’s cocaine empire in the U.S. And whatever reasons may exist for feeling sorry for such a person are not on display here.
George Jung (Johnny Depp: Chocolat, Sleepy Hollow) is just a kid from Massachusetts when he hits the beaches of Southern California in 1968. He’s blond and cute as hell, all the girls are stewardesses, and everybody must get stoned — George falls by accident into dealing pot, and makes a small fortune. By 1970, George has a mansion in Acapulco, a gorgeous stewardess girlfriend, Barbara (Franka Potente, the Run Lola Run chick), and a cadre of fair-weather friends/fellow dealers whom he hasn’t yet reason to mistrust. Could life be any better?

Sure it could. George ends up — accidentally, again — in a bind that requires that he offload some coke, and discovers that it’s a venture even easier and more lucrative than he imagined. With his pot partner, Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens: Mystery Men, The Nightmare Before Christmas), in on the scheme, George works his way up the coke ladder until he is dealing with Columbia druglord Pablo Escobar himself, as his exclusive West Coast distributor. Can his downfall be far behind?

No, it cannot. And it always comes down to money, doesn’t it? As Miguel Ferrer’s low-level dealer notes glumly in Traffic — the cerebral and shrewd antithesis of Blow — it’s when you get greedy that you get caught. But ever since he was a kid, George vowed never to be poor — despite the fact that his dear old working-class-stiff dad told him that money doesn’t matter — so there’ll always be one last score for George to make.

Demme’s (Monument Avenue) direction is Scorsese-lite — he gets the duplication of the early 70s detail-perfect, he uses a narrator and the pop music of the period on the soundtrack, but it all feels like a showy distraction from the story rather than a way of telling it. The cocky confidence of the film belies the soppy point it wants to leave us with in the end: that crime doesn’t pay because the criminal ends up disappointing his parents and his children, ends up sad and lonely without them. The unrelenting antisocial glee that made Goodfellas‘ Henry Hill so compelling an antihero — which Demme and Depp start off replicating and then let drop — gets lost in Blow. And the shift in tone is what kills the film.

And as a perverse reminder of all that Blow is not, and might have been, who plays Dad? Ray Liotta (Cop Land), the wonderfully cold heart and bitter soul of Goodfellas. I’d just about given up on Liotta after his recent, and best forgotten, one-two punch of Hannibal and Heartbreakers. But he’s as good here as he can be, in an underdeveloped role — ditto for Rachel Griffiths (Amy, My Best Friend’s Wedding) as George’s mother — that wants to serve as George’s heart and soul and isn’t given enough room to become that.

Henry Hill remained a hard, cynical bastard till the very end — that was his charm. George Jung turns on a dime from callous and criminal to pathetic, with no opportunity to let our sympathies follow. A film has to try much harder to get me to pity who’s wallowing in a bed of his own making.

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