directed by Ted Demme
(New Line Cinema, 2001)

Johnny Depp first made his mark in Hollywood by making unreal characters like Edward Scissorhands and Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker seem real. In Blow, he takes a very real person and makes him almost surreal.

George Jung (Depp) was just a teen-ager when he drifted from the Boston area to California to escape life with a very loving but unsuccessful father (Ray Liotta) and an unloving and very emasculating mother (Rachel Griffiths). There, he says, he and his best friend, Tuna (Ethan Suplee) had everything anyone could want in life: $300 and a black TR3.

But Jung was to have much more. Before retiring to the federal penitentiary at Otisville, he was to make and lose $60 million and become known as the man who made cocaine the drug of choice for millions of Americans.

It starts with a simple pot deal -- if we can believe Jung, who narrates the film from a prison cell in Otisville -- that suddenly escalates when longtime friend Kevin Dulli (Max Perlich) can't stop raving about how much better Jung's pot is than what college students were plunking down big bucks for back home. Within weeks, Jung, with the help of his stewardess girlfriend, Barbara (Franka Potente), has become the Marco Polo of the East-West drug trade.

And so it goes for Jung, who always seems to be in exactly the right place at the right time with just the right idea. In a few years he goes from pothead to pot salesman to the gringo connection to the Medellin cocaine cartel, complete with Colombian wife.

What makes Blow work, though, isn't so much what happens as how it happens. Depp makes Jung bigger than life by constantly underplaying him, keeping his voice steady and his eyes down.

He gets a hand from director Ted Demme, who keeps the story simple, the narrative linear and the focus on Jung's life rather than the drug-induced frenzy that surrounds it. In many ways, Blow is as much a love poem to fatherhood as it is a thugs-and-drugs opus, beginning with Jung's devotion to his own dad and culminating in Jung's ultimately unrequited love for his own daughter (Emma Roberts).

Demme also gives Blow a solid footing in American history. The scenes from the '60s look like the '60s and the scenes from the '70s capture all the superficial opulence of what might have been America's worst decade.

And he fills his film with some wonderful character actors, especially Paul Reubens as the pot-supplying hair stylist who starts Jung down the road to riches and ruin, and Liotta, who makes a surprisingly good good guy. And if you want to talk technique, keep a watchful eye for the scene in Danbury prison in which Jung and his cellmate (Jordi Molla) converse after lights out in a series of horizontal-head-shot fades to black. It has to be seen to be understood -- and appreciated.

So Blow has something for everyone: sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and redemption, plus a love story or two and a little history on the side. You may not want to spend your life like this, but it's a great way to spend an evening.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 30 March 2002

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