Movie Information

Genre: Biographical Drama
Director: Ted Demme
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Paul Reubens, Ray Liotta
Rated: R

Ted Demme’s Blow — the director’s first truly “big” picture — is a film that attempts to do for drug trafficking what Boogie Nights did for pornography: that is, turn itself into an amazingly deep film about amazingly shallow people. And while the film comes close to achieving this goal, it never quite gets there. Blow is beautifully crafted, stylishly directed, and generally brilliantly acted — especially by Johnny Depp, who seems incapable of giving a poor or indifferent performance. Ted Demme has a natural edgy style that lends itself to the material at hand. What Demme does with Blow is always interesting and quite often remarkable. As an evocation of a certain era — actually a variety of them — the film is almost uncanny. Demme’s collaboration with Depp is equally rewarding, since the performance reveals a sharp-edged quality quite different from anything Depp has previously done. And there’s no denying that Blow represents some pretty startling artistic growth on Demme’s part. Many of the scenes have a resonance generally lacking in his previous work, and his skillful introduction of smoothly integrated fantasy elements — especially a scene near the end that layers fantasy on fantasy where Depp’s character imagines his daughter visiting him in prison — is brilliant and unlike anything in Demme’s earlier filmography. The thing that keeps from propelling Blow to genuine greatness is simply the fact that it appears to have more on its mind than it can deliver or articulate. Basing the film on the life of cocaine trafficker George Jung (Depp) is a good enough springboard, but after it sympathetically and largely non-judgmentally traces his rise and fall, the question arises: To what end? All this brilliant filmmaking, all these fine performances, all the obvious effort … just feels like it must be leading to some significant point, but it really never does. The film isn’t bad, but it’s strangely unfulfilling. Part of the problem obviously lies with the screenplay, which tends too much toward mere reportage with no attempt at understanding. Even when it flirts with an intriguing parallel between Jung’s mother (Rachel Griffiths) and his wife (Penelope Cruz) — two women whose stock in trade is brazenly betraying Jung — it never explores the question it raises. It doesn’t help that the character of Jung’s wife, Mirtha, is an exercise in writing that never rises above “Bitch 101.” Indeed, a case could be made that the film is more than a little misogynistic. Jung’s father (Ray Liotta in a standout performance) endures his wife’s abuse and frequent desertions throughout the film. Jung does much the same, only with both his mother and his wife. Adding more fuel to the fire is the fact that Jung’s daughter is easily turned against him and, as the film makes clear, has never visited her father in prison. In fact, the only woman in the film who doesn’t offer a direct level of betrayal is Jung’s first girlfriend, Barbara (Franka Potente), who never gets the chance because she dies of cancer early on. Whether or not this woman-as-bitch motif is intentional, it manages to leave a slightly unpleasant taste. The unfortunate thing about this and the film’s other shortcomings is that Blow is an otherwise wholly remarkable work.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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