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A Kinder, Gentler Dope Fiend

In Ted Demme's Blow, Johnny Depp summons an American snowstorm.

Hello, what's this? Why, could it be another cautionary tale from Hollywood about recreational drugs being -- alert the media! -- not particularly good for people? Indeed, with Blow, director Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls, Monument Ave.) has set us up with a morality tale in which the moral is obvious from the start, and there's very little to do but sit back and enjoy the ride.

To get into the guts of Blow, we'll visit a Chicago courtroom in 1972, where semi-oblivious George Jung (Johnny Depp) sits slouching with nary a care in the world as he is convicted of smuggling 660 pounds of marijuana into the country. "I crossed an imaginary line with a bunch of plants," he mumbles, genuinely curious as to what the big deal could be. Bemused yet firm, the matronly judge (Dorothy Lyman) smiles as Jung lets fly with a Dr. Seuss-style rap about his relative innocence, and then she sentences him to five years. It's just one way in which the hapless entrepreneur makes good on his promise never to end up like his parents, and, as the workings of his clunky psyche are unveiled, we'll be seeing plenty more.

The parents in question -- first introduced in a warmly nostalgic, Ward-and-June prologue, which quickly proceeds into a richer, unhappier portrait -- are Ermine and Fred Jung (Rachel Griffiths and Ray Liotta), a couple of well-intentioned squares who inadvertently produce a major-league dealer.

Johnny Depp is caught in the storm of Blow.
Johnny Depp is caught in the storm of Blow.

Perhaps taking his cues from the Doors (as Demme takes some of his from Oliver Stone), George grows up and hits the beaches of Southern California for fun in the sun with his corpulent best friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee). In the first of many helpful and illustrative montage sequences, we learn that all the bikini-clad honeys are employed as stewardesses, and George eventually selects one, Barbara Buckley (Franka Potente, nearly unrecognizable after Run Lola Run), to be his Summer-of-Love squeeze. But there's still no cash flow. Leaping to the rescue is Tuna, who sets the wheels of George's career in motion with the seemingly innocuous question, "You remember wondering what we were going to do for money, being that we don't want to get jobs and whatnot?"

Although Blow is "based on a true story," as well as the book of the same name by Bruce Porter, one must marvel at the editing job screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes must have done on the life of the real George Jung. Almost immediately after George and Tuna hook up with a flamboyant hairdresser and pot source named Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens in shag-drag, sort of a Pee Wee Vermin), they're all off to Mexico with accomplice Kevin Dulli (Max Perlich) to transform smuggling into a fun-filled fiesta.

Surprisingly, it takes a long, long time for the shadows to creep in on George's fantasy existence -- if indeed they ever fully reach him -- and this is where the film swerves wildly away from the hard-core significance of Traffic. Demme and his crew have crafted the project to feel altogether less preachy and more generous than Steven Soderbergh's cliché-laden juggernaut, resulting in an acutely philanthropic movie. Because George is not wicked, but merely -- like his country -- confused and absurdly ambitious, he's relatable, winning his own lottery through hard work and hard play. Watching him cavort in the sun or fuss with crates full of money ("We're gonna need a bigger boat!"), one almost forgets that he's in any way a criminal.

There's much more to Depp's work here than a series of wig changes, and from his somber voice-over to his credible surfing of life's ups and downs, the actor is in characteristically fine form. (He also seems relieved to be appearing in a project where he gets to show off his chain-smoking skills.) Ironically, while it further cements his reputation as America's premiere channeler of adorable ne'er-do-wells, this also may be the project that finally opens him up to subtlety.

Blow makes a strong statement about the revolutionary effects George Jung had upon the America of the '70s and '80s, and once he hooks up with Colombian hustler Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla), it's all downhill, or uphill, from there, depending upon your perspective. After George lands fifty kilos of the pure white powder and becomes the doorway to the California elite, all heaven and hell break loose, including frightening encounters with villain/humanitarian Pablo Escobar (the incredibly flexible Cliff Curtis). As he changes the way America gets high, George likewise gets high with a saucy Colombian brat named Mirtha (Penelope Cruz, mirthless and merciless), who ends up as his wife and the bane of his existence.

And here's where it all clicks, where George's epic and miserable trajectory resonates with truth: He simply forgets that a girl who likes to be slapped around in a dog collar and snorts the white stuff like a wild sow is probably not ideal wifely material.

Co-produced with typically reactionary zeal by Denis Leary (who starred in Demme's gloriously sharp-witted first feature, The Ref), Blow wants to get in your face and tell you the real story, man, but, luckily, the unassuming tone nips any overheated exposé triteness in the bud. The only time it really drags is when it becomes almost ruthlessly poignant, basically whenever George and Mirtha's daughter Kristina (Emma Roberts young, James King grown up) appears on screen to symbolize good values and hope and stuff like that. That aside, there's never a dull moment in Blow, but, cinematically speaking, there's never a mesmerizing one either; it's basically your above-average nice drug movie.

 
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