Blow ought to watch like a prequel to Traffic. And for the first half at least it’s energetic, if stylistically derivative. But finally it comes off as a wobbly-kneed Goodfellas wannabe, a candy-assed apologia for a guy who can’t believe he was once worth $60 million but now won’t get out of prison until he’s 72 and flat broke. Henry Hill had it good pouring ketchup onto egg noodles.Based on the true story of George Jung, the movie chronicles the rise and fall, and then the more spectacular rise and fall, of this Massachusetts youth who moved in the late ’60s to Manhattan Beach, California, where he became a successful marijuana dealer … got busted with serious weight in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport … did several years at a federal penitentiary in Connecticut … bonded with his cellmate, a Colombian car thief who, when they got out, introduced him to a fellow Colombian named Pablo Escobar, who wanted to break into the California market … and then Jung went on to become one of Escobar’s major West Coast movers of powder. Sounds promising, yes?The movie opens with a montage showing cocaine production deep in the heart of the Colombian jungle: peasants working the paste, armed guards all around, donkeys, trucks, small aircraft. Soon, director Ted Demme cuts to the family life of young George Jung in small-town Massachusetts. It’s not just the childhood flashback combined with the character’s voice-over narration that suggests Goodfellas, or the fact that the boy’s father is played by Ray Liotta, Goodfellas‘ Henry Hill. It’s the same damn setup: dad’s a working stiff, mom’s screaming about money, and the boy wants to put all that behind him and attain something more glamorous.
We then flash forward to the 1960s. George (now played by Johnny Depp, who doesn’t interiorize the character so much as inhabit his surface, his Boogie Nights wardrobe, his bad hair) and his best friend have settled in Manhattan Beach, where’s there’s an endless supply of babes in bikinis. A montage follows of the babes saying, “I’m a stewardess,” “I’m a stewardess,” “I’m a stewardess,” etc., etc.–that, too, echoes the funnier scene in Goodfellas in which the Lorraine Bracco character, introduced at a party to Henry’s friends, can’t get her bearings since everyone seems to be named either Pete or Paul.
At any rate, having a stewardess girlfriend comes in handy for moving dope through customs. It’s the ’60s, it’s California, and there’s lots of dope-smoking and casual sex at the beach. Desiring more of the action, George has his stewardess gal, Barbara (Franka Potente of Run Lola Run, seriously underused in her first American role), introduce him to Manhattan Beach’s primo distributor, a young gay restaurateur and hairdresser (Paul Reubens–Pee Wee Herman–portrays him in one of the film’s funniest and strongest performances as a fellow who starts out flamboyantly gay but then settles down to business). But George, still not satisfied, realizes he can make money even faster if he connects with a source. So what does he do? Why, he travels to Mexico and starts asking around, just like that, and in the wink of an eye it’s 1970 and he and Barbara have moved into a mansion overlooking the sea in Acapulco.
In this way the movie dissipates a lot of energy, spreading itself too thin over too many decades, trying to cram in too much incident and winding up never digging deeply enough into the characters. It’s as though Demme thinks he’s making an epic, Lawrence of Cocainia, and not just a character study of a shallow young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time (and mistook it for the right place). A couple of years later George gets busted in Chicago with 600 pounds of grass. Barbara gets cancer, dies (realism), and it’s like, Barbara, we hardly knew you. George, who’s jumped bail and gone on the lam to be with her, is heartbroken. Back in Massachusetts, he pays a surreptitious visit to his mom and dad, and while he’s chatting with dad (Liotta also performs solidly, warmly, none of his usual psycho stuff), who disapproves of his dope-dealing but in a good-natured, nonjudgmental way, his mom–good old Mom–sics the cops on him.
Well, it goes on like that. In prison, he links up with the Colombian who, hearing him describe his marijuana distribution network, decides to introduce him to Pablo when he gets out. So, living at home on probation, he takes a quick flight to Colombia, where in 1976, in Cartagena, he meets Pablo himself. Just to make clear to us, and to George, that he’s a serious dude who tolerates no managerial mishaps, Pablo executes some former partner pointblank in front of George before settling down to business. (What the movie doesn’t show, just eases around and glosses over, is just how badly Escobar ripped apart the social fabric of Colombia, setting off bombs in bookstores and shopping malls in Bogotá in an effort to blackmail the government into nullifying its extradition treaty with the US.)Blow moves in a faux-energetic way, trying to capture the exhilaration of the times–we see George and his friends partying hard; we see them on a boat crammed with more cash than anyone would know what to do with in several lifetimes. Yet Demme never quite captures the jangled rhythms that might have made this movie work (the way Scorsese captured those coke rhythms crashing down all around Henry like a cascade of garbage pails in the latter part of Goodfellas). Soon, George falls for a hot Colombian babe (Penelope Cruz, nicely recovered from All the Pretty Horses) who’s already engaged to a Colombian–but since George has Escobar’s protection this egregious breach of protocol, this no-no becomes a go-go. There’s a rapid-fire montage showing what a hot time they have: really quick flashes of leather, handcuffs, whips; don’t blink–it’s a sequence that will probably prove more popular in video and DVD, with one hand on the pause button, the other on–oh, never mind.Back in California, George buys a mansion (another one) and fancy sportscars, and deposits his money in General Noriega’s bank in Panama. But meanwhile, he and his wife start dipping a bit too much into the product–say, five grams a day–with predictable consequences: he suffers a heart attack in the delivery room as his wife gives birth to their daughter. But, hey, that little baby girl inspires him to clean up his act.
He gets busted anyway, and what follows–his discovery that Noriega, that rascal, has appropriated foreign drug accounts in the name of Panamanian nationalism (sixty million, poof!) and prison, a terrible breakup with his wife, release, more prison–is wretched, enervating, and downright maudlin. The energy doesn’t just flag, it crashes to the ground and lies there, outlined in chalk. It’s as though the movie itself needs to be packed off to a twelve-step program.
By the end, Blow dissolves into a puddle of self-pity as George, serving out his hard-time sentence in a federal penitentiary, hallucinates his daughter, now grown up, visiting him. A final title informs us, maudlinly, that his daughter has still never visited him. Can you blame her?