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Coke and a Smile

Ambitious Blow explores the highs and lows of the '70s cocaine trade

Hello, what's this? Why, could it be another cautionary tale from Hollywood about recreational drugs being not particularly good for people? Indeed, with Blow, director Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls) has set us up with a morality tale in which the moral is obvious from the start, and there's little to do but sit back and enjoy the ride. While 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.

To get into the guts of Blow, we'll visit a Chicago courtroom in 1972, where semi-oblivious 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. Bemused, the matronly judge 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.

The parents in question are Ermine and Fred Jung (Rachel Griffiths and Ray Liotta), a couple of squares who inadvertently produce a major-league dealer. From his Boston-bound childhood, young George (Jesse James) observes his father sliding into bankruptcy. He also grows increasingly alienated from his mother, whose flights from the home leave an indelible imprint upon her boy. Basically, between Dad's spiraling workaholism and Mom's cold absence, the kid grows up too fast.

Money for nothing: The film’s generous tone allows its drug-dealing characters (Johnny Depp, left, and Jordi Molla) to revel in their illicit fortune.
L. Sebastian/New Line Cinema
Money for nothing: The film’s generous tone allows its drug-dealing characters (Johnny Depp, left, and Jordi Molla) to revel in their illicit fortune.

Details

Rated R

George grows up and hits the beaches of Southern California with his corpulent best friend, Tuna (Ethan Suplee). In the first of many helpful montage sequences, we learn that all the bikini-clad honeys are employed as stewardesses, and George eventually selects one, Barbara Buckley (Franka Potente), 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.

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. As is necessitated by the constraints of the medium, a lot of information is compressed, 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), they're all off to Mexico with accomplice Kevin Dulli (Max Perlich) to transform smuggling into a fun-filled fiesta.

Surprisingly, it takes a long, long time for the shadows to creep in on George's fantasy existence, and this is where the film swerves wildly away from the hard-core significance of, say, Traffic. Demme and his crew have crafted the project to feel altogether less preachy and more generous than Steven 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 relatable, winning his own lottery through hard work and hard play.

Of course, a lot of this enchantment has to do with Depp's cosmetic appeal, which the movie shamelessly milks. It will be interesting to see if 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. Thankfully, there's much more to Depp's work here than a series of blond 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.

Blow really does make a strong statement about the revolutionary effects George Jung had upon 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 upon your perspective. After George lands 50 kilos of the white powder and becomes the doorway to the California elite, all heaven and hell break loose, including frightening encounters with villain/humanitarian Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). As he changes the way America gets high, George likewise gets high with a saucy Colombian brat named Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), who ends up as his wife and the bane of his existence.

And here's where it all clicks, where George's miserable trajectory resonates with truth: He simply forgets that a girl who likes to be slapped around and who snorts the white stuff like a wild sow is probably not ideal matrimony 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.

It's unfortunate timing for 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 upon her impact on George, combined with that of Mirtha's, the portrait gains a load of depth.

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