Can you hear me knocking?
“Money isn’t real. It doesn’t matter. It only seems like it does.” This is the weighty lesson that Fred Jung (Ray Liotta) proffers to his young son George (Jesse James), during an early scene in Blow. The kid is skeptical, since he’s seen his parents fighting over money for years, to the point that his mother has left home a few times, out of frustration with Fred’s inability to make a decent wage, no matter how many jobs he works. It doesn’t help matters that when Fred utters his words of wisdom, he’s just declared bankruptcy, and brought little Georgie along to the bank to witness the event. No surprise, the child is upset: he scrunches up his face and rejects Fred’s advice, just like he rejects his offer of a cheer-you-up ice cream.
At this point, the adult George’s voice-over interjects: he decided then and there that he would never ever live like his parents. For George Jung, money is all too real.
Blow is all about how reality and money get mixed up. And for this film, the mix is even more complicated than usual, since its protagonist is based the real-life George Jung, drug dealer extraordinaire and Pablo Escobar’s right-hand man during cocaine’s late-‘70s to early-‘80s heyday. His story is certainly amazing and eventually, tragic: a kid from a working class neighborhood in Weymouth, Massachusetts, he grew up to make multiple millions of illegal dollars and partied with international before he was busted for the last time and imprisoned until 2015. But even more important, for Ted Demme’s entertaining epic-lite film, is the fact that George is an emblem of excess, arrogance, and irresponsibility, attitudes that have everything to do with being who he was at the time—an All-American hustler.
Based on Bruce Porter’s 1993 biography, David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes’s episodic script is duly impressed with its subject, by turns sympathetic, affectionate, and outraged on his behalf. It opens on little boy George, adoring his father, fretful as his parents argue, resentful as his mother Ermine (Rachel Griffiths) returns—at Christmas time, no less—after one of her many attempts to leave Fred. Where George and his dad are repeatedly framed in loving closeness, Ermine is typically shot at a distance or in darkness, selfish and unsupportive.
From here, George grows up into the fabulously charismatic Johnny Depp, hair blond and shades dark. At 21, he and his childhood friend, huggable-bearlike Tuna (Ethan Suplee) leave Massachusetts for Manhattan Beach, where they move into a seaside apartment and survey the sights. One of their lovely stewardess neighbors, Barbara (Franka Potente, from Run Lola Run, managing a creditable non-German accent, most of the time) falls for George right away. When the boys are looking for a way to pay rent (without having to “get a job and what not”), the aptly nicknamed Barbie introduces them to the superbly named Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens), local weed-distributor and owner of the area’s first men’s hair salon. Flamboyantly charming in his own devil-doll way, Derek is, like everyone else, instantly taken by George, identifying him as the perfect “Ken” for Barbie. Though George and Derek apparently make a formidable business team, the film tends to use Derek for minor comedic effect (perhaps this is a function of the “novelty casting” of Reubens). As little as you see of it, Derek and George’s relationship suggests that George was rather remarkably progressive for a beauteous straight boy during the 1960s, so at ease with his boy that they cozy up and smooch for the camera on Christmas.
On one level, scenes like this extend the film’s portrait of George as just the nicest guy on the planet. On another level, it shows the casual glee taken by dope dealers back in the day. Long before “Just say no” and the commercially promoted War on Drugs, selling marijuana was a laid-back way to make a living, not the stepping stone to evil and depravity that it’s become recently. Things change when George comes up with a way to escalate business, by using Barbie as courier between California and pot-starved New England (used to be, no one searched stewardess’s bags). He even figures out how to cut out the middleman, flying the stuff up in bulk from Mexico. It’s all fun and goodness, a 60s-style beach-party montage, complete with corny long lens zooms and Pilot’s “Blinded by the Light,” smoke, sunglasses, and bonfires everywhere. As George puts it, “It was perfect.”
It is perfect, until he’s busted with 660 pounds of pot at O’Hare. During his first stint in prison (or, “crime school,” as George describes it), he hooks up with cell-mate Diego (Jordi Molla), who happens to know a fellow by the name of Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). As soon as he’s paroled, George meets El Padrone in Colombia and they go into business, very big business. George reports that he and Escobar were responsible for some 85 % of the coke that came into the U.S. during the early ‘80s, when it was the coolest drug around, equally suited for disco parties and board rooms.
He’s doing so well that he and Diego don’t have room in their apartment for all their money (one cute-funny scene shows them literally crowded by boxes and boxes of cash—“We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” says George, dryly. And so, they follow Escobar’s lead, and store the loot in Noriega’s U.S.-condoned Panamanian bank. Though Blow doesn’t go into detail concerning the official and unofficial politics of drug-running at the time, it does suggest that for a while, the biz was glamorous and easy, if you paid attention to details. But—and there must be a “but,” because George is an object lesson—while George is especially smart about the mechanics (hiring the planes, setting up the connections), he’s actually pretty terrible at handling his personal business. He means well, but he is an unthinking, self-absorbed asshole, marrying a rival’s fiancee, a ravishing Colombian cokehead named Mirtha (Penelope Cruz) and ignoring the obvious fact that Diego is falling apart.
And then, George’s life changes. He and Mirtha have a beautiful daughter, Kristina (Emma Roberts), And he decides to go straight. It’s at this point that, according to the movie anyway, the DEA and FBI target George with a vengeance. And so he looks like a victim several times over—betrayed by his rule-bound mother, demanding wife, and unfaithful friends, and pursued by the dogged feds. George never appears to be a criminal mastermind, even though, of course, he’s fully aware of Escobar’s brutality (strikingly illustrated during their first meeting), the terrible conditions for laborers who harvest and manufacture cocaine, and the awful addiction and depression of his own wife (this last indicated in a chilling montage of Kristina’s birthday parties, as Mirtha becomes increasingly withdrawn and sunken-eyed each year). Instead, the film extols his kindness and optimism, all the while showing those around him, in particular the Mexicans and Colombians, as cheaters and wackos.
Bad boys have always made for good cinema. Lately, they’ve become especially popular for auteurist look-backs at “important” eras, for examples, Oliver Stone’s The Doors, Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, all of which resonate in this film—Demme knows his film history. As a film, gorgeously shot by Ellen Kuras (Swoon, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled), meticulously edited by Kevin Tent (Election), and exuberantly directed by Demme, Blow is a great fun ride. As an indictment of the penal system that puts kids away and so, teaches them to be lifetime criminals, it’s effective, though its focus on the white, bigtime celebrity-dealer doesn’t quite make the case for all the smalltimers, the underclass kids locked up for years, for minimal crimes. Blow‘s focus on the painful price George continues to pay (Kristina still has not visited him in prison) means that it doesn’t have to come to terms with its own celebration of him. He doesn’t go out in a blaze of glory, he’s not mean or violent like Scarface, but he’s also not entirely recuperable within a standard moral economy. The ambiguity is complex and important, but it isn’t pressed very hard: this is Johnny Depp we’re talking about, after all. And so, the film leaves you with George’s abundant personal magnetism and good intentions as the central coordinates by which you might chart your response to his story. His place and responsibility in an extensive system of corruption remain unclear.