Blow is a film that was released in 2001, starring Johnny Depp as real-life drug smuggler George Jung. It was directed by Ted Demme, whose body of work I am largely unfamiliar with, but the premise sounded like it had potential. Jung was one of the most prolific drug runners in American history, an associate of Pablo Escobar, and largely responsible for fueling the cocaine craze of the 70s and 80s. With that real-life background, and A-list stars Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz, one could be forgiven for expecting this to be an interesting movie.
Sadly, as this film meandered its way through 124 minutes, I nearly found myself nodding off a couple of times. And since I stayed up for about three hours afterward organizing my music files, I don’t think it can be blamed on fatigue.
I’m guessing they spent the budget for script rewrites on peroxide.
The problems with this film can be broken into three simple categories: the main character, the secondary characters, and the plot. In order for an audience to become invested in a main character, they must be either sympathetic or interesting in some way. This is probably the least interesting Depp performance I’ve ever seen. George is almost constantly out of focus emotionally; he barely reacts to anything. It’s as if sampling his own wares has burned out that section of his brain, but he starts off that way in the film. There’s some justification with a troubled home life, but regardless of the reason, it makes it hard to be interested in what he says or does. There’s no emotional weight to most of it, and no cleverness in the dialogue. He comes across as a perfectly ordinary, rather boring person — which, if accurate to real life, was probably helpful to George Jung’s career, but it makes for a dull screen performance. There is a bit of pathos to the character later on, a moment when the audience gains a smidgen of sympathy for him with the care he has for his daughter, but it’s only a smidgen. The rest of the time, we’re watching this dull person repeat the same mistakes over and over again without learning a thing. By the end of the movie, I was rooting for his final fall — not out of any sort of antipathy, for even that would be interest of a sort, but out of a simple desire to see it finally get things over with.
The supporting cast is not much better, largely being made up of talkative props. George’s first girlfriend, played by Franka Potente, has much the same sleepy demeanor as George. His later wife, played by Penélope Cruz, is the stereotypical “feisty Latina” character, and nothing more. She does at least liven things up a bit, and there’s an obvious parallel with his money-obsessed mother, but there’s only barely enough meat to the role to justify giving Cruz secondary billing — which she probably got simply because nobody else in the film warrants it either. Cruz is wasted in this, and so are most of the actors, particularly Ray Liotta as George’s father. Most of George’s “business associates” are blank ciphers whose personalities are defined through descriptions that aren’t demonstrated; Jordi Mollà’s character Diego insists the two of them are like brothers, but we see nothing to indicate this. Perhaps the closest the film gets to having a colorful character is Paul Reubens as George’s first drug contact, an effete Hollywood hair stylist with a marijuana business on the side.
Why is it that whenever I watch a movie about drugs, it features Paul Reubens?
The plot, at least in concept, ought to be interesting. George has to build his network of contacts, evade the law, deal with the occasional prison sentence when he doesn’t evade the law, deal with double-crosses, and try to build a stable home life. That should be a good movie. But everything has this same sleepy, plodding approach to it. The exciting stuff is almost always off-camera, or cut away from the second it begins — whether it’s a drug delivery, a drug raid, or a trial. His career, his home life, and his prison stays go by in a blur, not because of the film being fast paced, but because there’s a paucity of detail in the scenes themselves. The details of the events are filled in with narration, from Depp as George, and it too is dull. Depp reads the lines of narration like they’re the tax code; it is unenthusiastic and monotonous.
There are few things as aggravating about a movie as wasted potential. This could have, and should have, been an interesting film. But anything of merit was all lost in the haze. There is only one area I can give it my wholehearted praise: it had a great classic rock soundtrack. But it’s nothing you can’t hear on the radio, which is a better way to spend two hours.