Blow is based on the true story of an “American kid,” George Jung (Johnny Depp), who grows up to be the biggest cocaine importer of the 1970s and ‘80s. He claims in voice-over to have imported over 85% of the coke in the country, with the help of his Colombian connection, Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). The film examines that brief era when coke was glamorous, the drug scene at Studio 54 was hip, and crack had not yet ripped the inner cities apart. Like Traffic, it reveals the real individual costs of selling and using drugs, and how “everyday” folks get swept into the huge machine of the drug business. Demme and screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes weave together the epic scope of international drug smuggling and George’s intimate experiences as husband, father, and son, to create a cautionary tale.
Demme’s movie brilliantly captures the exhilaration of George’s life through a variety of cinematic methods—intimate love scenes illuminated by a golden glow; a couple’s insularity highlighted by a spinning camera that puts them at the center of the universe; good times recalled through collages of snapshots and snippets of home movies. Energy builds through stop-action and slow motion shots, and Mark Bridges’ costumes, spanning four decades of fashion, are so true that the viewer is never jerked out of the moment by misrepresentations of the eras. And hey, it doesn’t hurt that Depp makes a leisure suit look good.
Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Rachel Griffiths, Paul Reubens, Franka Potente, Ray Liotta, Max Perlich
(New Line Cinema)
Fortunately, all this visual potency doesn’t sidetrack Demme. He uses it to highlight social and personal questions, for instance, what creates a drug dealer? A rotten childhood? Poverty? The movie answers by showing George’s early days in the Massachusetts suburbs. He has stable parents, not perfect, but able to provide a solid working-class home despite money problems. Though his mother (Rachel Griffiths) is demanding and ambitious (okay, she’s a harpy), his father (Ray Liotta) is warm-hearted and loving. George’s childhood is basically uneventful, which means that we can’t rely on standard narratives of deprivation to understand why he takes up drug dealing.
Still, he wants out. After weathering cold winters and his demanding mother, George heads to Manhattan Beach, California during the 1960s in search of warmth. A fledgling hippie, he finds the laid-back atmosphere more to his liking, though, as his friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee) says, the two of them face one problem: “What we’re gonna do for money and all, being as we don’t want to get a job and what not.” George’s new California girlfriend Barbara (Franka Potente, of Run Lola Run) solves that puzzle for him when she introduces him to the local source for pot, a hairdresser named Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens). George discovers that selling pot is an easy way to finance the party life, where every day is a merry-go-round of sex, drugs, and sun. He can avoid the money troubles of his parents and the hard work of his father that never seemed to pay off. At this stage, George’s new “career” is perhaps most understandable. He loves his girlfriend, he doesn’t cheat his customers, and nobody gets hurt selling pot.
But in 1972, George gets busted with 660 pounds of marijuana, a quantity the authorities frown on, and he makes his first trip to jail. This is pivotal for George. As he notes, “Danbury wasn’t a prison. It was a crime school. I went in with a B.A. of Marijuana and come out with a Ph.D. of Cocaine.” Tension builds as the film’s focus shifts from pool-side parties in Acapulco to George’s first visit to Colombia, where he meets some really bad dudes, in particular, Escobar, for whom he becomes the main U.S. contact. George gets off on the danger: he refuses to play by the rules, an outsider who thrills at the risks and huge benefits of his move from pot to coke.
But the danger and excitement of George’s life aren’t enough to create a credible, sympathetic interest in his life. Without Depp, it would be just another sad story of a man who bites off more than he can chew. Throughout his career Depp has brought nuance to his portrayals of characters who can’t or won’t fit the norm. Hollywood is full of gorgeous leading men, but none can match Depp’s odd comic genius.
Yet, Blow isn’t a vehicle for Depp’s wackiness (though he does manage to work in a small tribute to Ed Wood, involving a pair of lacy women’s panties). No, he plays George seriously, capturing his working-class New England accent, his mannerisms, desire for wealth and excitement, and his inability to see what these “attainments” cost those around him. His performance as the hedonistic, but amiable and well-meaning George, is first rate, perhaps even a career best. He portrays George’s slow realization that he missed what his father was trying to teach him in a way that is completely engrossing. His dad told him as a young boy that “money isn’t real,” but George doesn’t get it until he is forcibly separated from his parents and daughter. His heartfelt goodbye to his father is gut wrenching His heartfelt goodbye to his father is gut-wrenching, as George speaks his last message to dying father into a tape recorder, unable to go to him because he’s in prison and his mother won’t support a furlough. The pain he expresses at being separated from his family moved the preview audience to audible sniffles. (Even the guy next to me was crying.) It isn’t every day that an actor can make viewers care so deeply about the fate of someone so self-centered.
In the end, the film asks us to examine the personal price George pays for being such as slow learner, refusing to give neat answers about him. It takes George himself a good forty years to learn his lesson. Is he evil? Is he simply blind to the larger ramifications of his actions? Is he just a guy who enjoyed his work? George has difficulty answering these questions for himself. For much of the film, George is blind to the costs of his high life. He doesn’t much notice when his second wife Mirtha (Penelope Cruz) is wasting away from cocaine. He loves his daughter, but doesn’t think much about her future. He certainly never thinks about the human costs of drug production in Colombia—the health problems of workers exposed to huge amounts of coca, the murdered policemen and dealers, the families afflicted by the loss of members murdered or jailed. George focuses instead on the gaiety and affluence around him—the parties, the money, the sex. He lives according to his own rules and it is up to us determine just what kind of person that makes him. And hey, call someone you love right now: don’t let yours be a life of regrets.