Johnny Depp plays George Jung, a key player in the 1970s cocaine-trafficking boom, in the fact-based drama “Blow,” the most ambitious project to date from director-producer Ted Demme (“The Ref,” “Life”). Initially buoyant and flavorful, pic grows less distinctive as Jung’s rise-and-fall saga hits the downhill slope. Respectable but unmemorable end result may suffer from comparison with the similarly themed, albeit differently angled, “Traffic,” especially if latter gains a theatrical second wind after the Oscars. However, relative paucity of hip prestige items in the spring marketplace should help “Blow” achieve decent middle-range returns in most territories.
While unquestionably a spectacular real-life story, the onscreen “Blow” (adapted from Bruce Porter’s nonfiction tome) hazards direct comparison with several prior fictive features, from Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” remake to “Boogie Nights” and “Casino.” The last two are particularly similar in narrative arc and retro-high-life atmosphere, and boasted much more narrative-scale sweep (as well as sustained stylistic bravado) than “Blow” achieves.
Part of the blame may be laid on adherence to facts: Covering a roughly two-decade span, pic’s events too often seem overcompressed, with psychological depth sacrificed. But direction and script (by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes) also shoulder some responsibility, as both prove much more adept at engineering early reels’ heady, lightly mocking air than lending sufficient weight to protag’s later free-fall.
Nonetheless, “Blow’s” first half is quite impressive enough to satisfy aud expectations raised by star and subject. After initial sequence showing the now-zaftig, middle-aged Jung pulling one last cocaine megadeal, pic rewinds to his late-’50s Boston-area childhood.
Mother Ermine (Rachel Griffiths) constantly harps on loving father Fred’s (Ray Liotta) erratic abilities as a breadwinner — frequently walking out on both husband and son in fits of materialistic pique.
Thus George’s youthful move to sunny ’68 Southern California, accompanied by rotund best friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee), finds him an all-too-eager convert to countercultural venture capitalism. Chicks, beachfront digs and endless parties reward the duo for just a little free enterprise: Making sure their ever-widening circle of friends remains well-supplied in primo marijuana.
George soon broadens his market to Eastern home turf — with a convenient assist from g.f. Barbara (“Run Lola Run’s” Franka Potente), who as a stewardess can transport goods without being searched.
It all seems blissfully easy until George is arrested in 1972, carrying some 660 pounds of pot. Meanwhile, Barbara dies from cancer. Given that tragedy and George’s prison stint, the happy-go-lucky partnership forged with Tuna, fellow Bostonite Kevin (Max Perlich) and well-connected L.A. hair stylist Derek (Paul Reubens) quietly dissolves.
Fate, however, throws George in the same cell as Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla) and, after both are released, George takes up Diego’s offer to become the American conduit for notorious Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). Despite the heightened risk involved in multinational smuggling, George flourishes for a while during the coke/disco heyday and gains some insider cache via wedlock to high-born bombshell Mirtha (Penelope Cruz). Yet her behavior soon echoes Ermine’s, even after she gives birth to a daughter. Life turns darker as his Panamian-banked fortune is appropriated and escalating FBI heat brings George closer and closer to permanent incarceration just when he’s desperately trying to focus on his child’s need for parental stability.
This final half-hour features pic’s most intimate and downbeat dramatics; unfortunately, they coincide with its most pedestrian writing and direction as well. There’s a tactical error in making George’s preadolescent daughter (Emma Roberts) an only-in-movies fount of cliched grown-up wisdom and doleful accusations.
But the bigger problem is that “Blow’s” whirlwind progress hasn’t laid necessary groundwork for a family-values pitch, however much its loss may haunt the real-life protag. (Postscript notes Jung won’t finish his prison stint until at least 2015, and has never been contacted by his only child.) As the end approaches, each scene strikes a more heavy-handed, sentimental note than the last. Reliably brilliant at fleshing out borderline-cartoonish characters, Depp often grows vague in more conventional protag roles. This one is no exception: While always watchable, thesp’s interp seems to be hiding its insights behind Jung’s ever-present tinted shades. The arrogance, recklessness or sheer ambition that might help explain how this all-American boy waded into such deep trouble are MIA.
Depp’s meticulous aging makeup comes off as just that, while his series of ultra-dated blond frightwigs are fun but wildly unconvincing. Nor can disbelief be suspended re: George’s parents (Liotta being just eight years’ Depp’s elder, and Griffiths five his junior), though the actors make a creditable effort.
As the father, Liotta comes closest to lending pic a center of emotional gravity. Aussie Griffiths (sporting an immaculate Beantown accent) does all she can with an aggressively shrill, shallow character; Cruz, who doesn’t appear until 70 minutes in, gets just one memorably berserk scene amid an otherwise banal hottie-to-harpy arc.
Fellow Spanish star Molla, making his U.S. bow, is fine until Diego’s “Scarface”-like madness unleashes way too much inner jamon. Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) at first makes gay Derek a grating flamboyant stereotype, then reigns it in quite effectively. But all these plus several other significant parts ultimately get short shrift from a script that’s epic in outline but thin in character involvement.
Production design pays close attention to the more vulgar nouveau riche styles of the late 1960s through early ’80s, providing considerable incidental amusement. Demme amplifies that slant in certain segs, reviving groovy cinematic gimmicks of yore (still photo montages, etc.) to witty effect. In the same vein, Graeme Revell’s sly original score mimics swingin’ lounge music cheese, while vintage rock hits (with special emphasis on the Rolling Stones) are smartly deployed elsewhere.
Ellen Kuras’ impressive widescreen lensing at times draws on the bold ingenuity of her early indie work (“Swoon,” “Postcards From America,” “Angela”). Mexican locations prove a convincing substitute in Colombia-set scenes.