A Kinder, Gentler Dope Fiend

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

Thank goodness 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 in which 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 -- following cuddly mockeries of Ed Wood and Hunter S. Thompson as well as interpretations of "Cry-Baby" and Ichabod Crane, among many others -- 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!

While we're on that subject, Blow really does make 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 50 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 does likewise 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 matrimony material. It may be too ham-fisted for the tastes of some, but the script posits that drugs and illegal business aren't really the problem as much as George's difficulty embracing a gentle femininity. He's drawn to Mirtha because she's hot but also because she's utterly rotten to him... kinda like Mom.

Johnny Depp and Jordi Molla have some coke and a smile
Johnny Depp and Jordi Molla have some coke and a smile

Details

Screenplay by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes, based on the book by Bruce Porter

It's unfortunate timing for Rachel Griffiths -- what with next year's Oscars a year away and all -- but in Blow she turns in an undeniable bid for Best Supporting Actress. Curt and demanding yet clearly at odds with some soul-severing inner conflict, Ermine is -- like her name -- all about a deceptively soft exterior concealing the heart of a weasel. When one reflects upon her impact, combined with that of Mirtha, on George, the portrait gains a load of depth. And if anyone needs further convincing about Griffiths' performance, consider that she's actually younger than Depp.

Coproduced 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 area where the film really drags is when it becomes almost ruthlessly poignant, basically whenever George and Mirtha's daughter Kristina (Emma Roberts as a child, James King as an adult) 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. Its dizzy head may be in the clouds, but at least its heart is in the right place.

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