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Dust in the Wind

Blow's Coke-Fueled Sound and Fury Signify Nothing

Wasted: Blow makes no use of star Johnny Depp's considerable talents.

By Ian Grey | Posted

Directed by Ted Demme
Opens April 6
Style counts. In the case of director Ted Demme's multigenerational dope saga Blow, the style employed--for the movie's first half, anyway--is that of Martin Scorsese's 1990 mob epic GoodFellas. Blow uses Scorsese's patented zoom-to-freeze frame technique and his speedy wide-screen, mega-dolly shots. In Blow, Johnny Depp plays real-life rags-to-riches-to-rags cocaine dealer George Jung but, unfortunately, he narrates the film in a droll, no-regrets voice-over, just like Ray Liotta did in GoodFellas. Liotta also appears in Blow, playing Jung's dad, Fred. Liotta not only looks and acts a great deal like Robert De Niro here; in key scenes, he apes the mannerisms of De Niro in, yes, GoodFellas.

But Blow's derivativeness isn't even its main problem; in fact, it falls apart when it strays from the GoodFellas model. Blow is a movie about drugs, the '70s, foxy coke-hound babes, and skeezy Colombian dope lords. It has one bizarrely kitsch, lava lamp-lit hump scene, suggesting some possible connection between sex and drugs, and two scenes of oddly polite violence. Its only interesting character is a swishy gay hairdresser/dealer named Derek, played by Paul Reubens. And it all adds up to something really depressing.

Blow's first act--the GoodFellas part--follows Jung's journey from lower-middle-class Boston to his discovery of dope dealing as a road to riches. Dad (Liotta) is a hard-working guy who can't make ends meet; Mom (Rachel Griffiths) is a loathsome, money-obsessed harpy. And so young Jung hightails it to Los Angeles' Manhattan Beach and is soon dealing pot, aided and abetted by his beach-bunny girlfriend, Barbara (Franka Potente), and her pal, the aforementioned Derek. This being the late '60s, college kids are clamoring for decent weed, and Jung makes a killing.

At this point, the film's only interesting idea appears. In 1970, cocaine was at odds with the laid-back dope ethos of hippie America, so Jung and Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis), top dog of the Colombian Medellin drug cartel, conspire to create the market for blow, paralleling the way companies such as Nike create a market for uselessly ornate and expensive tennis shoes. Curtis, simmering threat like no one's business, manages to suggest the duality of Escobar, a guy who was responsible for a reputed 500 deaths yet gave money to build schools and aid environmental causes. Unfortunately, his is a one-scene walk-on. And so much for the historic import of Jung being the first gringo to enter the Medellin Cartel's inner sanctum.

As the disco generation discovers that things go better with coke, Jung takes in obscene amounts of money. He meets, marries, and has a child with Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), an anorexic but gorgeous utter bitch. As their relationship decays and Jung gets repeatedly busted, the film finally stops being GoodFellas. What's left is lifeless and dramatically inert.

God knows Depp gives it his all and, as always, is utterly fascinating to watch. He's a guy whose soul you can read just by looking at his lost-doe eyes. Unfortunately, he wears sunglasses for 95 percent of the movie. There's also no indication as to how Jung rose to such dizzying dope-world heights. Jung appears to have been blessed with no special abilities beyond being Johnny Depp--which is a pretty terrific thing to be but, one guesses, not enough to create and co-run the biggest coke ring in the history of the world.

That Demme (The Ref) and screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes looted Scorsese's box of tricks isn't an inherently bad thing. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson commandeered GoodFellas' style and structure in Boogie Nights to convey the low-rent kineticism and adrenal rush of the '70s porn biz. But surely there's another way to tell a dope story with family overtones.

Demme and the screenwriters present selling pot as a morally neutral enterprise. This stance is (sort of) extended to coke: What's the difference between selling an addictive, potentially lethal drug and being the head of Seagram doing the same? the film seems to ask. But if Blow is trying to make us rethink our feelings about guys such as Jung and their product, the moviemakers' thinking is muddy. The contradictory messages "drugs are bad," "the War on Drugs isn't working," and "drugs make it possible to have steamy sex with Penelope Cruz" don't add up to much. When Jung gets his comeuppance, is it because cocaine is intrinsically worse than booze? Is the War on Drugs a hopeless crock? Are the draconian punishments inflicted on users a greater obscenity than addiction? Based on Blow's evidence: Beats me.

Finally, Blow never evinces an understanding of what made GoodFellas such a terrific film beneath its brilliant surface gloss. When you think about Ray Liotta in Scorsese's masterpiece, you don't think about cocaine; you think about the contradictions within a lovable family man who approaches bloody murder and making a nice marinara sauce with the same neutral moral stance. Jung is presented as a pragmatic sort of guy who just stumbled onto a way to make a great deal of dough. But with the film's krazy fashions, cardboard characters, and lack of a focused reason for existing, Jung's personality paradox isn't enough to fill in Blow's many blanks.

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