I know what you’re thinking. I’ve heard a lot of people grousing, “Why do we need another picture about coke or the rise and fall of a drugpin?” Hell, by now every rapper has his or her mandatory copy of Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” on DVD. That epic of excess not only conveys all the joys and dangers of cocaine; it actually makes you feel like you’re on a three-day binge. However, there are a few good reasons for the existence of the new film, “Blow”, not the least of which is that it’s true. Well, sort of, but we’ll look at that in a minute.
Director Ted Demme’s movie is really composed of two stories. One concerns the birth and explosive growth of the cocaine market in the United States. The other is about a man who fails to learn from either his own mistakes or those made by his parents. That man is real-life drug distributor George Jung, played by Johnny Depp.
Beginning as the proverbial “all-American boy” in Massachusetts, Jung began his career as a pot distributor and smuggler in California. During his first stint in prison, he became educated about cocaine by his cellmate, Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla). Following the parole of both men, they begin a relationship with legendary Colombian supplier Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis) that will eventually flood the U.S. with coke. They all became filthy rich. George eventually finds his wild Colombian wife Mirtha (Penelope Cruz) and they have a daughter. Then the whole deal goes south, especially for George.
The tale of how cocaine invaded this country is mostly accurate. Like any real story that has to fit into a couple of hours, characters and events have been compressed and rearranged for clarity. One strange alteration is the character Diego. Not a composite, he’s based entirely on convicted drug distributor Carlos Ledher. Sure, Escobar is dead, so he really can’t complain about his depiction. I can only guess studio lawyers felt Ledher might complain about his portrayal despite the amount of evidence that supported his conviction. At this point he really isn’t in any position to say anything.
This is really Jung’s story, though, and it is fairly compelling. Part of the reason he falls into this career choice is to avoid the mistakes made by his parents. His mother, Ermine (Rachel Griffiths), is selfishly concerned about class and appearances to the point she repeatedly leaves her husband and young son when frustrated about the family’s finances. On the other side, George’s dad’s is played by Ray Liotta. Insert your own joke here. After Jung’s first love (Franka Potente) dies, he lacks a centering and stablizing force in his life. Despite the heights reached in the drug realm, from that point on, he continually repeats a vicious cycle where the combination of his own bad habits and the personal betrayal by those closest to him always result in yet another prison stint. By the time he finally learns from his mistakes it’s way too late.
Now, you may not agree with what appears to be the stunt casting of the film or the lack of depth of many of the characters. Bobcat Goldthwait seems to appear for no other reason than to have a scene where he can do rails with Johnny Depp and Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Reubens. “It Girl” Penelopy Cruz doesn’t enhance her fading repution either with a shallow performance that ranges from around evil to just insane. Next to the star’s understated portrayal, everyone other than Liotta comes off a little silly. However, none of this seems to detract from the power of the last 15 minutes. A lot of time goes into revealing everything Jung gains during his ascent to the top of the drug trade. More time is committed to the documentation of how he then lost everything short of his life. After Depp conveys this loss, Demme tops it with the only thing he can: a picture of the real Jung today, aged and destroyed. The real George Jung is due for parole around 2015. As “Blow” teaches us, the prison of his own grief won’t be so easy to escape.