Hot Pot

In Blow, Johnny Depp plays it cool in this "nice" drug pic

Hello, what's this? Why, could it be another cautionary tale from Hollywood about recreational drugs being--alert the media!--not particularly good for people? (If only they could try the same with guns. Messrs. Heston and Silver: You awake yet?) Indeed, with Blow, director Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls, Monument Ave.) has set us up with a morality tale in which the moral is obvious from the start, and there's very little to do but sit back and enjoy the ride. While the project is galaxies away from inventive, it's definitely a cool and crafty pastiche of Scarface mingled with Goodfellas, wrapped in the polyester playfulness of That '70s Show. Whether this description serves as a beacon or a warning is up to you.

To get into the guts of Blow, we'll visit a Chicago courtroom in 1972, where semi-oblivious George Jung (Johnny Depp) sits slouching with nary a care in the world as he is convicted of smuggling 660 pounds of marijuana into the country. "I crossed an imaginary line with a bunch of plants," he mumbles. Bemused yet firm, the matronly judge (Dorothy Lyman) smiles as Jung lets fly with a Dr. Seuss-style rap about his relative innocence, and then she sentences him to five years. It's just one way in which the hapless entrepreneur makes good on his promise never to end up like his parents.

The parents in question--first introduced in a warmly nostalgic, Ward-and-June prologue, then quickly blended into a richer, unhappier portrait--are Ermine and Fred Jung (Rachel Griffiths and Ray Liotta), a couple of well-intentioned squares who inadvertently produce a major-league dealer. From his Boston-bound childhood, young George (Jesse James) observes his father sliding into bankruptcy ("Money doesn't matter," declaims the foundering father. "It only seems like it does"). He also grows increasingly alienated from his mother, whose selfish flights from the home leave an indelible imprint upon her boy. Basically, between Dad's spiraling workaholism and Mom's cold absence, the kid grows up too fast: "I don't care about ice cream," he exclaims. "What are we going to do?"

Perhaps taking his cues from the Doors (as Demme takes some of his from Oliver Stone), George grows up and hits the beaches of Southern California for fun in the sun with his corpulent best friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee, from Kevin Smith's universe). In the first of many helpful and illustrative montage sequences, we learn that all the bikini-clad honeys are employed as stewardesses, and George eventually selects one, Barbara Buckley (Franka Potente, nearly unrecognizable after Run Lola Run) to be his Summer of Love squeeze. But there's still no cash flow. Leaping to the rescue is Tuna, who sets the wheels of George's career in motion with the seemingly innocuous question, "You remember wondering what we were going to do for money, being that we don't want to get jobs and what-not?"

Almost immediately after George and Tuna hook up with a flamboyant hairdresser and pot source named, quite antithetically, Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens in shag-drag, sort of a Pee Wee Vermin), they're all off to Mexico with accomplice Kevin Dulli (Max Perlich) to transform smuggling into a fun-filled fiesta for the whole family.

Surprisingly, it takes a long, long time for the shadows to creep in on George's fantasy existence--if indeed they ever fully reach him--and this is where the film swerves wildly away from the hard-core significance of, say, Traffic. While many may snort at this happy-go-lucky tone, Demme and his crew have crafted the project to feel altogether less preachy and more generous than Soderbergh's cliché-laden juggernaut. Of course, a lot of this enchantment has to do with Depp's cosmetic appeal, which the movie shamelessly milks. Thankfully, there's much more to Depp's work here than a series of wig changes, and the actor is in characteristically fine form.

There's never a dull moment in Blow, but, cinematically speaking, there's never a mesmerizing one either; it's basically your above-average nice drug movie.

 
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