Blow (2001)

Directed by Ted Demme

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Blow moves quickly.  Before the 30 minute mark, George (Johnny Depp) has already reinvented himself on the west coast as the weed dealer, gotten arrested for trafficking large amounts of drugs and dealt with the death of his girlfriend following a sudden cancer diagnosis.  Then the rest of the movie happens.

Drug (or mafia) movies like this follow a pretty familiar formula.  You introduce the character in voice over narration, possibly starting with the protagonist’s childhood, and then you just speed through the rise of the empire before finally taking a breath with the decline.  Johnny Depp does a good job as George Jung, but the rise of his drug-dealing and trafficking is so quick that each scene feels like an expository stepping stone to the next.  It’s only when George starts to suffer and lose his sanity that Depp gets to have any real fun with the role.

In one scene George tries weed for the first time.  In the next he’s an avid smoker, and then in the next he decides he wants to start selling.  After only a few minutes he is already the go to guy for pot in Manhattan Beach.  The plot moves so quickly that there’s no room for nuance or anything all that interesting.  The beats of the story feel very familiar and even cliche.  In another scene, George is visited by a friend from back east who says he would kill for weed this good on the east coast.  We hold on George’s expression as he thinks about this.  It’s one of those almost silly scenes where a character has a sudden realization, the camera pushes in towards his face as he considers this new reality, and then before we know it, he commits to it and the movie continues to jump forward through time so this sudden decision already feels like an old one.

There’s nothing wrong with Blow, in fact I quite enjoyed it.  The best parts are the performances (Depp and Penelope Cruz in particular), but this story feels like it’s been told so many times that it feels like you’re watching a rerun of an old television show in the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday.  Part of that might be the clear connections between this movie and Goodfellas, mostly due to the shared casting of Ray Liotta.  Another might be the connection between this and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a Johnny Depp from three years earlier that features heavy drug use to put it lightly.

Now, in the case of Goodfellas, Liotta plays a vastly different character.  Here he is the stabilizing force in George’s life, his father, but a man to whom he never listens.  But seeing Liotta on screen, you can’t help but think about the rise and fall of the characters in Goodfellas.  And that film is much better than this one, so I think Liotta’s casting unfairly forces you to compare these two films.

And with all the weed and coke and Depp’s voice over as well as peculiar outfit and hairstyle, it’s impossible not to think of Fear and Loathing, a film which is completely unhinged and unrestrained in a way I think fits the genre of drug movies.  I mean, these characters are so detached from reality and their own sanity through their drug usage (just remember the scene of George at his daughter’s birth, high on cocaine), that the style of the film should reflect that.

Instead, Blow feels almost mundane and certainly predictable in its story construction and the style of the filmmaking.  Again, that doesn’t make this hard to enjoy, but when you compare it to movies that overlap this on the venn diagram, it starts to feel like a worse movie.  Basically, this movie is good in its own right, but when you start comparing it to other movies it suffers as a result.

Watching George’s rise to the top is almost comical because of the quickness with which the story moves at first, as I mentioned.  There has to be a huge suspension of belief on the audience’s part.  In Goodfellas, this rise of the protagonist, while working just as quickly, felt more believable because we were introduced to important characters early on.  From what I remember, we met De Niro’s and Pesci’s characters before Liotta’s own character got in good with them.  We saw the group he wanted to become a part of.  In Blow we only meet those characters when George is trying to work with them.  We are’t given time to get to know the power structures within this drug trafficking world.  Stuff just happens and we have to keep up.

The second half of the film, dealing with the downfall, is much more well-done.  The scenes are a little longer, giving Depp and his costars time to really dig into their character and demonstrate their pain.  To put it another way, I imagine the scene of George trying weed the first time taking an hour to film, and I imagine the scene in which he says goodbye to his daughter in prison took an entire afternoon.  There just feels like there was more work put into the latter half of the movie.

And George’s downfall is pretty brutal.  At times it’s uncomfortably absurd, like when he passes out, too high on cocaine, at his daughter’s birth.  This was something out of Fear and Loathing, but then it’s easy to feel his pain as he tries to get out of the drug ‘game’ and be a better father for his daughter only to succumb to his own poor judgment and dive right back in, ending up in prison.  The scenes between freed-George and his daughter, as he tries to repair their relationship, are delicate and oddly beautiful.  I was surprised at how much I wanted them to get along, surprised possibly because it mostly felt like George was a broad caricature of a man throughout the movie rather than an actual man.

But in failure he is suddenly grounded, made to look more human, even more human-like and less Hollywood star-like.  When the movie ultimately ends, with George in prison, there is a weird hallucination scene in which he imagines his adult daughter has come to visit him.  This scene kind of comes out of nowhere as now we’re led to believe that George really has lost his mind a bit, which might certainly be the case and which helps emphasize the consequences of his unbelievable drug use.

Blow is an easy watch, considering all the crazy stuff we see onscreen.  It’s crazy within this world and within our own, but movie audiences have been trained to expect this kind of stuff onscreen.  Between GoodfellasCasinoFear and Loathing and The Wolf of Wall Street, to name a few, you can sit back and watch this movie without really paying attention and you won’t miss a thing.  It’s worth watching, more as a companion movie, something you might watch while doing something else.

A few last notes: The poster for Blow shows Penelope Cruz and long-haired Johnny Depp in some kind of loving, cool embrace, like these are cool people that we all want to be like.  But the movie mocks and ridicules George most of the time.  Sure he looks cool in a couple scenes, mostly because of his movie star good looks, but George mostly looks foolish (with his Beach Boys haircut in the beginning) or desperate like someone trying too hard to cling onto the last decade (with his giant, wispy sideburns) and finally he ends up looking like late in life Elvis Presley, which is not the Elvis you want to look like.

So the movie poster suggests this is a movie about two cool cats doing their cool, dangerous thing, but it’s really a story about a guy burning out fast.  Penelope Cruz isn’t even in the movie all that long.

Near the end of the story, George writes his father a note in which he expresses some regret for his actions, but he also emphasizes that he truly lived while some people never do.  Maybe he did, but I’m pretty sure the audience is meant to recognize that George’s idea of living isn’t really the right idea.  Drugs will make you think you’re living, particularly while under their influence, and maybe if you do them enough, like George, it can permanently affect your thinking, making you believe you were living when you never were.

In a film like Goodfellas, the protagonist comprehends his downfall, but in another Scorsese film like Raging Bull, the protagonist deludes himself into thinking his downfall wasn’t his fault.  In one, the protagonist accepts what happened, and in another he doesn’t.  In Blow, George ultimately seems to accept his role in what landed him in prison, but there’s still part of him that glorifies his past the same way this movie does.

Still, George’s comeuppance is firm and hits hard, as it should.  I wonder if, when a director makes a movie like this, he enjoys the part of the story that deals with the downfall.  It often feels like the director indulges in the character’s own lavish lifestyle during the ascent to the top, but then they depict the downfall only because that is what’s expected, like there’s a social contract that allows you to romanticize drug use as long as you show that it never ends well.

I will say that even though a couple scenes really show how deep into his addiction George has gotten, Boogie Nights probably still has the best depiction of characters falling deep into a cocaine-induced mania and hysteria in the scene between Heather Graham and Julianne Moore.

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