Blow isn’t so much a cousin to Goodfellas and Boogie Nights as it is a shameless little brother who insists on copying their every move. Like those classic films, Blow shows us a bleary-eyed protagonist, done-in by a lifetime of bad decisions. George Jung (Johnny Depp) built and squandered a drug empire, pissed away any meaningful relationships, and will grow old in prison, talking wistfully to imaginary figures in the yard. He narrates this fantastical tale with the shrug of a defeated man, as if there could’ve been no path except the one that led to his total destruction. This movie plays like one long, melancholic sigh.
It’s the early 60s when meet Jung as a little boy, somewhere in Jersey. His parents (Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths) squabble over money, prompting his mother to frequently storm out of the house. When he gets old enough, Jung peaces out to sunny California, where he can subsist on beach parties, weed, and stewardesses. Everything is just groovy for a while, but Jung feels the pang for more. After seeing his parents fret and fume over not having enough, little Georgie decides to build a life of too much.
With his girlfriend (Franka Potente) and best bud (Ethan Suplee) in tow, Jung starts off peddling grass to hippie beachgoers. The money pours in, but it’s still not enough. Jung links up with Derek Foreal (Paul Ruebens, in an excellent performance), a savvy, eccentric drug dealer. It’s not long before Jung is moving hay bales of weed all over the country, and growing his criminal enterprise at warp speed. But it’s still not enough.
Predictably, Jung gets pinched and does a stretch in prison. Here, he rooms with Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla, playing a stand-in for Carlos Lehder), who introduces him to the exciting world of cocaine. Through this white powder, Jung can finally sate his hunger for a life of excess.
After 26 months, Jung strolls out of prison as a true mastermind. He and Diego partner up with the Medellin cartel, led by Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). This leads to the avalanche of cocaine in the United States during the 70s and 80s, and a subsequent empire in the tens billions of dollars. Jung quietly boasts that if you snorted any blow at that point in history, it was probably thanks to him.
Along Jung’s journey up and down the mountain, he meets Mirtha (Penelope Cruz). She’s ill-tempered, hedonistic, and beautiful, all of which combine to accelerate Jung’s doom. Mirtha does, however, give Jung the only true positive in his otherwise nihilistic existence: A daughter, Kristina Sunshine Jung (Emma Roberts). Fatherhood finally gives Jung a reason to clean himself up and take stock of his life. Of course, it’s already too late.
What follows is a tangled web of betrayals and blow-ups, as Jung’s life undergoes a physical and spiritual demolition. He ends up a fugitive, and his final interaction with his parents is pure tragedy: His histrionic mother wants nothing to do with him, while his father can only regard him with a strange mix of muted pride and sad bewilderment. Liotta and Depp bring real poignancy to this moment, one of the strongest in whole film.
Blow needs a few more scenes like this, with real emotional impact. Too much of the film feels like Diet Scorsese, where the characters plow through mountains of drugs, scream at each other, all while a classic rock soundtrack pounds out the hits. At the same time, Jung’s weary narration resembles Liotta’s in Goodfellas–a humdrum recounting of sleazeballs who murdered, screwed, and snorted their way into history. (Even Liotta’s presence in this movie helps make the link more obvious.)
If there’s a saving grace to all this, it’s Depp’s lead performance. On paper, Jung isn’t particularly strong protagonist. He lacks charisma and depth, and his life is primarily defined by the boneheaded decisions he makes. Depp is a true movie star, and he infuses Jung with warmth and humanity that elevate the movie above its mediocre script. That also goes for Liotta, who shines in the underwritten role of Fred Jung. If the writers had only fleshed-out his character–and Cruz’s–Blow could’ve landed much harder.
That said, this isn’t a bad movie. It’s always compelling. The story moves a decent pace. But its limitations only remind me of better moments in better movies. Jung’s closing scenes land with a real thunk, and I thought of Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas: He’s sardonic and pissed off, wryly dismissing his exile as a suburban schlub who has to totter out in a bathrobe for the morning paper. Hill and his buddies used to be the news. Here, I can only shrug along with Jung as he wanders into oblivion. This is a man whose accomplishments ruined many lives, including his own. I should’ve felt more for George Jung, but I didn’t.
124 min. R. On demand.