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Blow.

posted by Mel. on 4/27/01

There's a very poignant moment at the outset of Ted Demme's attempted cocaine trafficking epic that acts as a sort of a warning klaxon for anyone in the audience who's ever taken a class on structuring a solid screenplay. The warning sign commences the moment that a twin-prop plane touches down on a deserted runway and is quickly unloaded of its contents by Johnny Depp's George Jung and his smuggler cronies--with Depp prancing around the proceedings with a kangaroo pouch of a gut, chattering busily into the segue of the rudimentry 'drug approval' scene, there's some hope that this thing might play out to a tune of its own. Sadly, the script makes the swanbomb into an empty swimming pool just a heartbeat later. As Jung proclaims the pedigree of the coke, the frame chokes up and the flashback begins. Complete with a darkside twist on The Wonder Years' narration. It is at this moment that Blow fumbles the ball of intent, tries to pick it up as it bounces out of bounds, and ends up on the twenty yardline with its gym shorts around its ankles. Yes, Timmy. This is not a movie that's going to reinstill your faith in the studio system.

A look at a twenty-year cross section in the life of addict and would-be pusher kingpin Jung, Blow suffers from one of the most magnificent identity crises in modern cinema. Every hat gets a sure shot for at least five minutes: Look, ma, it's a buddy comedy! A retro-commentary on the consequences of the drug and love revolution! A drama about a life taking a clockwise spin down the toilet! A tear-jerking father and daughter relationship parable! And lest we forget, a perfectly good excuse for 'The Beautiful' Penelope Cruz to show off her ribs and writhe around in a leather teddy for at least a few minutes. Blow doesn't place any faith in the audience to care about the story just so long as they've got Depp to watch, and for what it's worth, the producers get points for knowing their demographic. At the Weekly viewing Jenks and I attended, the mangling of the word 'hypocrite' by Cruz's Mirtha got bigger yuks than any of the intended throwaway one-liners. Note to any entertainment magnates glossing this rhetorical shit: if your flick's biggest joke is based on a premise of "them foreigners sure don't talk like we do!", you ain't hiding the nosedive.

As the narrative coughs it up, Jung's eventual delinquency was a by-product of his manly mother and working-class pussy of a pop. It's pretty standard stuff by disinterested storytelling standards: eager to get to the boatloads of snow and the powderfinger drama, we hit all the expected pistons to build some sort of sympathy for little Georgie. His old man has a great work ethic, but can't convert it into a lever to boost his demanding bitch of a wife and son out of the suburbs. When dad finally does lose his job, he makes the mistake of invoking a basic snafu of any Tinsel Town biopic--BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY AROUND THE KID. It's another red light for those still hoping that Blow will get serious about itself, but cud enough for the general gender. The moment Jung Jr. has decided that he isn't ever going to be a broke slob living on hopes and dreams, we know the little bastard is screwed.

By the American logic, the ends justify the means, and we start losing our grip on just why we should care about what will eventually shape up into the George Jung tragedy. In a way, it also tallies up the sum of Blow's worth. A film of grand vision needs a life of compelling punch in order to put gas in its tank. A guy who decided he was going to become a billionaire just because his family didn't keep up with the Joneses isn't a solid case to try and build a biopic on. And to anyone who's ever lived in a bus stop for a couple days, it borders on comedy; ninety percent of the middle class and bohemian smear class have suffered far worse indignities than not having a Lexus in the family driveway, but we didn't become fucking Columbian cocaine smugglers because of it.

Script scribes David McKenna and Bruce Porter fire a shot in the dark, but the Jung family drama doesn't come close to providing just cause. God bless Ray Liotta for trying, but after being fed his own frontal lobe in the blockbusting Hannibal, he's got no future trying to juice empathy out of a tired, papery stereotype like Georgie's father. Rachel Griffiths doesn't fare any better in trying to build a character on a stupid concept as Ermine Jung; her direction of "More obnoxious. More. More. Not enough.. okay.. now more." is relegated to commenting about grown-up George's grudunza and making Papa Fred look like a half-pint bitch. Another note to entertainment moguls in the ether: a little Syd Field goes a long way.

George eventually blows the Boston scene for the fringes of Los Angeles, portrayed here as sort of a white paradise where even his tubby comic relief shlub-friend Tuna can get laid and score some quick grass. It's the sort of masturbatory California image bullshit that any film crew gets off on: miles of crystal sand uninterrupted by six-pack rings or black people, where the only pressing question is which chick to spank first. Though George's drawling voice-over informs us that he and Tuna were broke as a joke at the time, they manage to flop in a beachfront apartment and acquisition what appears to be about fifty pounds of pot from local drug-dealer-embarassing-gay-stereotype-forefather Derek Foreal.

This amazing actor named 'Paul Reubens' plays Foreal to the fruity hilt. You may remember Reubens from something called 'Pee-wee's Playhouse', which was popular among the kids until it was revealed that its star was both a white slaver and a pedophiliac psychopath who allegedly spit a semen sample on the jury at his arraignment for murdering a pair of undercover cops, or something. According to Entertainment Weekly, this 'Reubens' is back in a big way. Please mark your calendars.

Nah, in all unembittered honesty, Paul doesn't really have a lot to do in Blow. Despite the media clamoring all over this 'incredible comeback performance', his Foreal is the same kind of cardboard character that plagues everything else in the movie. Wrists limp, hair coifed into a greasy pompadour and a slight lisp added for sincerity. Although, if Blow is good for anything, it has allowed the Fucking Media® the opportunity to repackage Reubens as a legitimate actor, something they've refused to do despite the guy's talent since the big porn theater ground zero. Ergo, if Blow is remembered as the movie that got Reubens' long-rumored third Pee-Wee Herman movie off the ground, it will officially move from the pantheon of time ill wasted to time wasted for a good cause--an all-important distinction to make.

Foreal and George end up becoming partners in the proliferation of marijuana on the West Coast, a good deal that eventually goes bad when Jung gets busted with a payload of weed in Chicago. Things get murky all over again when his current girlfriend and smuggling partner Barbara (Franke Potente, stellar in Run Lola Run, but relegated to forgetting her accent here) suddenly bites the bullet from a shady bout with what's apparently cancer. George skips his court date to go nurse his broken heart and attend her funeral, and gets busted shortly thereafter when he stops by his parent's place to chat. Mom's standing with the story doesn't improve when she starts bitching Georgie out about his career choice, but she does redeem herself with cheap giggles by yelling at a nosy neighbor. It takes a sure hand to juggle poignant moments with crap comedy, and nobody's yanking in the reigns at this point.

George shaves his time by volunteering to head up a class on American history for the inmates. The scenes are some of the most unintentionally comical in the pic. Unable to tune down the static over his kissing of warden ass, Jung buys the complacency of his class by offering them how to smuggle drugs. The validity of the scene isn't the problem, but the hamfisted dialogue is; though the narrator disclaims the security measures at the prison, the image of a roomful of hardened criminals left free to discuss trafficking dope without a guard present or camera in sight is right in lockstep with the rest of the script. Don't ask too many questions, don't expect too many tied ends, and we'll all get through this shit without too many stains on our fingers.

George also gets into some brass tacks with his new cellmate Diego. A low-tier Colombian scumbag with a foot in the door of his country's evolving cocaine economy, Diego manages to get Jung in good with the bosses as a middleman for the American expansion of the druglines. The rudder doesn't keep stable for long. When Jung finally makes the trip to Columbia to meet rising czar Pablo Escobar, the movie makes an unnecessary Bruckheimer burp by illustrating how serious the kingpin must be by having him blow some poor schmuck's skull inside-out. Jung freaks out and the audience gets a wakeup call, but nothing ever comes of it. George agrees to play American liaison to Escobar's sniff empire, and we're off. At about the one-hour mark, Blow finally limps out of the starter's gates and gets into the real foundation of Jung's ascending star. Unfortunately, it doesn't get any better while doing so.

The fact that Denis Leary has a production credit for the movie is a really great little twist of irony--Leary fairly summed up the body of Blow and Jung's story in his seminal 'No Cure for Cancer' HBO special with this nugget of joy about cacked rocker Jim Morrison:

"I'm drunk. I'm nobody. I'm drunk. I'm famous. I'm drunk. I'm fucking dead." There's the whole movie, ok!? Big fat dead guy in a bath tub, there's your title for you."

If only the closure were so simple. The Jung saga can be summed up almost verbatim, as we watch George get tossed in jail, get out of jail, fight with his cokehead wife, lie to his kid, fuck up, get tossed in jail, get out of jail, get fat, fuck up, fight with his cokehead wife, get beat up, fuck up, get shot, get fat, get tossed in jail, and onward to an ending that drifts up out of the sewage like a phantom turd. Blow tries real hard to salvage some deep rooted revelation out of itself down the homestretch, but the sudden one-eighty from a celebration of narcotic excess and fortune to social commentary is so hackneyed, even the guppies in the audience had a hard time gagging it down. Jenkies summed it up perfectly as a shot of the real George Jung's face splashed over the screen to the confused mumbles of the departing crowd:

"Oh, the poor millionaire drug dealer."

Yeah, pretty much. The fact that Jung has wound up serving hard time until consideration for parole in 2015 is whipped out like the grand trump card, groping for cerebral udders to milk. Poor Georgie. His mind fried on coke, his stunning wife gone to the suburbs with a new husband, his sixty-million bucks evaporated and his estranged daughter nowhere in sight. A broken man, wandering around the prison yard to the tune of confused delusion.

And who to blame? That's the most pragmatic problem with the movie. After all's said and done, after watching Jung open the floodgates of coke to boiler-room yuppie shitheads and celebrity fuckups the nation over, there's no emotions left for the picking. Jung may be a victim, but he built that prison brick-for-brick, and if he ends up being a pathetic old carcass rotting within four solid walls of stone, then there's little else that can be said. Karma's a twat? Hardly. And George Jung doesn't make a very convincing sob story when the dust clears.

Likewise, it's more Jung's shortcomings as a criminal that drive Blow into the muck. Johnny Depp continues to cement his position as the Jack Nicholson of the Doom Generation with another solid performance, but there's nothing worthwhile to base his portrayal on. As Jung says it himself: "my ambition overshadowed my talent". It's exactly the opposite problem with the nuts and bolts of Depp's performance--Jung's ambition is what led him to becoming a career fuckup, and that far overshadows the talent at Depp's disposal. Also notable is the fact that Depp still hasn't been able to purge the Thompson Virus from his body after the blazing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas deal, as he makes the shift from smart Bostonian jibber-jabber to slurring Hunter mushmouth in sixty seconds or less on more than a few occasions. It doesn't take away from his performance any more than the script does, when it comes down to it.

Blow isn't the worst piece of shit to be spewed on the theatergoing public in this aging year, but it's far from the pertinent points that were dissected in Traffic. With a little less confusion and a good hacking at the screenplay, it could have been something great--as it is, it's just passable entertainment that's worth a free pass look on the strength of both Depp and Reubens' contributions.

As a final footnote, it is worth acknowledgment that the producers were at least smart enough to delete scenes that included Kristina Jung as a court clerk in lieu of the guilt trip that gets pushed on the audience in the flick's final moments. With all the attention paid to vilifying her and her decision not to commiserate with her father after his latest incarceration, it would have been the final insult. It's a punitive relief to know that, amidst all of Blow's crimes against competency, that someone was at least alert enough to dodge that bullet of dumb hypocrisy. In the current filmgoing landscape, we'll take the assurances where we can get 'em.

-m.

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