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'Blow': Tale of the Mouse That Bored

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2001


    'Blow' Johnny Depp and Jordi Molla play drug dealers in "Blow." (L. Sebastian/New Line)
You can feel "Blow" yearning for epic form. It aches to be a "GoodFellas" of the new century, a Homeric odyssey of American criminal aspiration. But it proves that epics are still men's work and you can't make an epic about a mouse.

The mouse in question is a professional criminal named George Jung, who managed to find himself at the center of the cocaine invasion of America in the 1980s. For his efforts – he specialized in clandestine air transportation – he was rewarded with incredible access to wealth, pleasure, beauty, interesting times and the opportunity to spend the rest of his life in prison.

His 30-year journey, through the vessel of a nonfiction book by Bruce Porter of which this is a movie version, is instructive. He's like Zelig or Little Big Man; he's everywhere, he sees it all, he has it all, he loses it all. Too bad he's a drip.

In a sense, the film gets at the generic amorality of movies. Movies care little about good or evil, and can't really sell either condition. They care ruthlessly about one thing, and that's charisma. Thus it's difficult to invest in the adventures of Jung, played by Johnny Depp in what is either a Boston accent or a mouthful of bran muffin, not because he's a bad man, but because he's an undynamic one.

This movie would have been so much better if it had been about someone else in cocaine culture: a crazy, with a MAC-10 in each hand and a screwball's gleam of utter self-belief in his mad eyes. That is, someone interesting, with a driving, Type A personality. Instead, it is hamstrung by Depp's Jung, a passive, unimpressive man who was a beneficiary of the right-time/right-place magic that has juiced so many other undeserved careers.

The movie opens with an evocation of Jung's unsettled youth, where his earnest dad (Ray Liotta, in an attempt perhaps to connect the film to "GoodFellas") works hard and gets nowhere. Thus little George learns that the working square's life is a one-way ticket to Loserville and resolves that no matter what, he will be rich. And, in fact, his parents – mom is played by Rachel Griffiths as a grim and bitter resenter – will be constant features in his life as he progresses. But at first, he drifts without purpose to Southern California in the mid-'60s, without skills, trade or ambition, takes up a feckless beach lifestyle, and soon sees that the key to chicks and respect is pot.

He enters the trade full time and learns he has a calling. Throwing in with a demonic hairdresser named Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens) who controls the SoCal pot trade while running a party that never quits, George begins to see wider possibilities. Soon he has expanded upon Derek's sources and begun flying the merchandise from Mexico to the States in heroic quantities himself, establishing a sort of franchise system of marijuana distribution. Doing all this, he essentially McDonald's-ifies the drug trade, and plugs it into the mainstream. Everyone deserves a break today, and George Jung is there to see you get it.

The director, Ted Demme, who will never be confused with his uncle Jonathan (the one with the talent), appears to be unhealthily attracted to parties. For in a sense "Blow" is one long celebration of social hubbub, and its favorite sequence – Demme comes back to this again and again – is the dope party, where the women are beautiful, the stuff abundant, the music loud, the clothes bad, the hair appalling, and the sense of freedom, pleasure and endless possibility fill the night like perfumed vapors.

Meanwhile, in his private life, George is not faring well. His first wife, a stewardess (played by Franka Potente, of "Run, Lola, Run"), dies, leaving him devastated. He makes a mistake; he ends up in prison. It turns out to be a great career move.

Behind bars, he happens to share a cell with an ambitious Colombian named Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla), busted on a minor trafficking charge. But Diego has connections; he knows a fellow back home who wants to start importing large quantities of cocaine into the States and is looking for a professional to run the operation.

So it is that George Jung ends up Pablo Escobar's right-hand man. He seems just as confused by his good fortune as everyone else, as unimaginable riches rain down on him, as he's suddenly a Hollywood A-list guy, as he has a vintage sports car collection, as he's suddenly dating Penelope Cruz (she plays Mirtha, a swank Colombian cocaine sweetie). Even the movie has a sense that George doesn't deserve all this. He's not a visionary like Pablo; he's not a tough piece of work like Diego, who rudely elbows him out of some territory; he's just a lucky schmo.

His luck is soon to run out, as the movie lurches toward the inevitable fall. Here is where it also evinces its ickiest, most estranging tonal weirdness. George feels sorry for himself and the movie buys into the criminal's deepest pathology, which is the conviction that he's the true victim. George is let down by everybody. George is to be pitied, and to get the idea across, George pities himself.

The fact that he is taken down by the FBI isn't tragic so much as grotesque; he clearly had taken no security measures, and by the standards of his own world, is a total loser as a criminal. The fact that Mirtha turns out to be such a monstro-bitch (she rips him a new one in the movie's most amusing scene, which is fueled by the power of the nasty verbal hosings the elegant, sinewy Cruz concocts) is yet another betrayal of our poor sensitive hero.

Finally, having had it all, and lost it all, he has learned nothing. His journey is negated by his stupidity and he comes to live under the delusion that he's just one big deal away from a return to the big time. So, stupidly, he makes that big deal; he just doesn't notice that everybody is wearing a badge.

The annoying thing about George's journey is the criminal's narcissism; he believes totally that all this has been about him, and that, in the end, his feelings are important. The truth is, of course, the George Jungs of this world aren't very important. They're not very anything, except in the way, which is why they're better off, and we are too, when they're out of the way. The movie offers him as tragic; his tragedy is that some people may actually believe this hokum.

"Blow" (124 minutes) is rated R for violence, sex and copious drug use.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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