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Dustin Putman

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Blow (2001)
3 Stars

Directed by Ted Demme
Cast: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ray Liotta, Rachel Griffiths, Paul Reubens, Franka Potente, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Jordi Molla, Cliff Curtis, Bobcat Goldthwait.
2001 – 120 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, profanity, sexual situations, and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 7, 2001.

How can a man so capable of loving manage to disappoint everyone he has ever cared about in his life? This is a question not easily answered in "Blow," a film by Ted Demme (1996's "Beautiful Girls") that is based on the true story of the rise and fall of George Jung, who was the largest provider of cocaine in the United States during the 1970s and '80s. As a character study and a drama, the picture is highly effective and always involving, succeeding in getting us to care about our protagonist, even while we question just how his life could have taken such a wrong turn.

As a child, George (Johnny Depp) was brought up in a middle class family with a hard-working, caring father, Ray (Ray Liotta), and a nagging mother (Rachel Griffiths). Ray attempted to ingrain into his son's mind that money isn't everything, or even a sizable part, of what life is all about, but by the time he graduates high school and moves to a Californian beach town in 1969 with his best friend, Tuna (Ethan Suplee), all that is on George's mind is how he can make a load of money without having to work for it. His ticket to the high life comes in the form of marijuana, which is generously provided by Derek (Paul Reubens), a friend of his stewardess girlfriend, Barbara (Franka Potente), which he begins to sell on the beach and quickly becomes the token dealer in the area.

Seven years and several arrests later, George's drug of choice has switched to cocaine, which he learns about while in the pen, and quickly garners up millions of dollars in cash buying it from Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis) and selling it in the U.S. While at his friend's wedding, George meets an alluring woman named Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), marries her, and has a baby girl that changes his life. Mirtha's tastes are expensive, however, and with an insatiable drug habit, George isn't sure if he will ever be able to get out of the drug business and give his daughter a healthy life.

"Blow" is the third motion picture about drugs in the last seven months (with the other two being the superior "Requiem for a Dream" and "Traffic"), but manages to differentiate itself enough to not feel routine or tedious. Whereas "Requiem" was a stark horror story of the way drugs destroy lives, and "Traffic" was a more technical mosaic of how drugs affect the entire world, "Blow" is a reasonably conventional docudrama about a talented man with infinite promise who ultimately chooses a lifestyle that ends up ruining his life, and every human relationship that has ever meant something to him.

Putting George Jung's life into perspective, he really does not seem like a notable enough person to have an entire movie dedicated to him. Jung was a drug dealer, albeit a remarkably successful one, who had the law eventually catch up to his illegal actions. Much of the film is reminiscent in style and execution to 1997's brilliant "Boogie Nights" and 1998's misguided "54," both of which involved drugs but did not have them as the centerpiece of the action. "Blow," in comparison, finds a happy medium between the two--it isn't as powerful or expertly directed as "Boogie Nights," but has far more depth and intelligence than "54"--and concludes on a note of bittersweet tragedy.

Johnny Depp owns the screen for every second he appears, which is more or less the entirety of the 120-minute running time. As George Jung, the 34-year-old Depp is believable as a young man in his early twenties, and equally convincing as a 50-year-old in the final act. What is most impressive, however, is how sympathetic he makes Jung. We care about him even as we despise him for not cleaning up his act for good, and it is a testament to Depp that his character remains accessibly likable throughout.

Ray Liotta, as George's loyal, if quietly disappointed father, is on a roll this year. With April only beginning, Liotta's has also been a standout in "Hannibal" and "Heartbreakers." In many ways, Liotta's portrayal is just as tragic as Depp's, as he plays an honest man who had high hopes for his only child, only to see him spiral deeper and deeper into an abyss. It isn't a large part, but Liotta creates the most clearly defined and heartbreaking supporting character in the film. A close second is Paul Reubens (1999's "Mystery Men"), stunningly deft in a rare dramatic turn as Derek.

The female counterparts include the likes of Penelope Cruz (2000's "All the Pretty Horses"), excellent as the ruthless, immature Mirtha, who dashes George's hopes of going straight; Franka Potente (2000's "Run Lola Run"), a radiant beauty in her first American film, as George's first ill-fated girlfriend, Barbara; and Rachel Griffiths (2000's "Me Myself I"), sternly poignant as George's stubborn, outraged mother.

Spanning five decades and accurately capturing the fashions and music of, particularly, the late-'60s and '70s, "Blow" is something you only find once or twice in the opening months of each year: a mature, emotionally resounding film that could have easily been released in December and garnered several Oscar nominations. It does not equal up to "Requiem for a Dream" or "Traffic" (both of which were nominated for Academy Awards this year), and moves a little too quickly through certain portions of George Jung's life (no doubt due to a desire to cut the film down to two hours), but "Blow" remains a more-than-worthwhile drama that confirms what a good director Ted Demme is, and what an unequivocal talent Johnny Depp continues to be.

©2001 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman