A Kinder, Gentler Dope Fiend

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

Hello, what's this? 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. While the project is galaxies away from inventive, it's definitely a cool and crafty pastiche of Scarface mingled with Goodfellas, wrapped in the polyester playfulness of That '70s Show. Whether this description serves as a beacon or a warning is up to you.

To get into the guts of Blow, we'll visit a Chicago courtroom in 1972, where 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 judge (Dorothy Lyman) smiles as George 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 are Ermine and Fred Jung (Rachel Griffiths and Ray Liotta), a couple of well-intentioned squares who inadvertently produce a major-league dealer. From his Boston-bound childhood, young George (Jesse James) observes his father sliding into bankruptcy. He also grows increasingly alienated from his mother, whose selfish flights from home leave an indelible imprint upon her boy. Basically between Dad's spiraling workaholism and Mom's cold absence, the kid grows up too fast.

Perhaps taking his cues from the Doors (as Demme takes some of his from Oliver Stone), George soon hits the beaches of Southern California for fun in the sun with his corpulent best friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee, from Kevin Smith's universe). In the first of many 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. As is necessitated by the constraints of the medium, a lot of information must be compressed into tight scenes, and some of the serendipity here is downright miraculous. 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 for the whole family.

Surprisingly it takes a long, long time for the shadows to creep in on George's fantasy existence, and this is where the film swerves wildly away from the hard-core significance of, say, Traffic. While many may snort at this happy-go-lucky tone, Demme and his crew have crafted the project to feel altogether less preachy and more generous than Soderbergh's cliché-laden juggernaut, resulting in an acutely philanthropic movie. Because George is not wicked but merely 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, one almost forgets he's in any way a criminal.

Of course given that the real George is more or less a dead ringer for Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx, a lot of this enchantment has to do with Depp's cosmetic appeal, which the movie shamelessly milks. Starting off as John Denver, he and hairstylist Candace Neal wend their way through the locks and tresses of Meat Loaf, Greg Allman, David Lee Roth, Jimmy Buffett, Suzanne Somers, and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, landing, quite disturbingly, upon a shocking likeness of Eddie Money.

Thankfully 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. Ironically,while it further cements his reputation as America's premier channeler of adorable ne'er-do-wells -- following cuddly mockeries of Ed Wood and Hunter S. Thompson as well as interpretations of "Cry-Baby" and Ichabod Crane -- this also may be the project that finally opens him up to subtlety. Here he's such a human drug dealer that he doesn't even load his gun. ¡Viva la revolución!

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