Tripped Up

`Blow' fails to tap the strengths of the book on which it's based. Instead, its saga of a cocaine kingpin leaves its characters high and dry.

April 06, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

"Blow" is half "Traffic" Lite, half traffic light - and the halves don't mesh.

"Traffic" Lite is a comical biopic about the super-casual rise of America's first cocaine kingpin. Traffic light is a cautionary tale about the perils of the drug trade. If the picture worked, both parts would come together in a vision of greed and frailty. Instead, it's a trip film that turns into a bummer.

Throughout, the movie is too soft on its lead character and too willing to chalk up America's drug appetites to the times-that-were-a-changin' in the '60s. Even when it tells us a few things we don't know, they go down too smoothly: There's little kick, less after-kick.

Based on Bruce Porter's strong nonfiction book of the same name, "Blow" tells how a Massachusetts-bred, Southern California-based dealer named George Jung (Johnny Depp) became a giant marijuana distributor in the '60s and the premier importer of cocaine in the '70s.

The film's most entertaining section depicts the ease with which Jung transported drugs from L.A. to northeastern colleges, flew loads of marijuana out of Mexico, and "invented" the cocaine market. This wasn't even model rocket science.

Near the beginning of the film, Jung arrives in Manhattan Beach, L.A.'s most convenient spot for stewardesses living the surfside high life. Jung and his "fly me" true love Barbara (Franka Potente) kiss and toke simultaneously. Soon, thanks to Derek (Paul Reubens), a pioneer unisex hair-parlor operator with hefty bags of first-rate weed, Jung and his jolly, chubby pal Tuna (Ethan Suplee) are peddling grass and making money no-sweat.

A visiting buddy knows this stuff would go over huge in Massachusetts college towns. So Barbara takes it through Boston's Logan Airport in her untouchable flight-attendant luggage. When supply can't meet demand, the whole group goes south of the border to develop a pipeline at the source.

At first, the film promises to convey the mindless blitheness of counter-culture drug use without inflating the wiles of a pusher like Jung. Good fortune drops into his lap, and he has the street sense to use it and extend it. When Jung declares to his dad, who went broke in the plumbing and heating-oil business, that he's good at what he does, some of us may feel he's pathetic. All he shows is charm, persuasion and a poker face.

Yet the filmmakers want us to see Jung as he sees himself: an embodiment of the American Dream circa 1968. Life is "perfect" when his gang is raking in the cash. Then his lover dies of cancer, and the communal vision falls apart.

Even at the start, director Ted Demme and screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes plot too cautious a course down the psychedelic highway.

What about these stars?

According to the book, Jung once rented a room in his Manhattan Beach digs to a struggling screenwriter, Baltimore's own Barry Levinson.

When Jung commuted to Puerto Vallarta not long after John Huston shot "The Night of the Iguana" near that old Mexican city, he hung out with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. (He says he kissed her, once.)

Why leave out the juicy details?

The filmmakers trade in generalities. They shave the edges off Jung's character, too. He was a slick jock from Weymouth, Mass., not a rocker or a hippie. But, with slender, sensitive Depp in the role, he slides right into Southern California drug culture. Depp is clever and appealing, but you can imagine, say, Denis Leary, generating more funk and friction in the role. (He gets a co-producing credit.)

Depp fits the movie's conception of Jung as a corrupted juvenile. As a kid, Jung adores his hard-working dad. As an adult he vows never to toil, as his father did, for a money-hungry, status-conscious woman.

The storyline takes its inevitable downturn when Jung replays his father's personal history - after accumulating and losing scores of millions in the coke trade.

Having been schooled during a short stay in prison by Colombian cellmate Diego, he proves his worth on the outside to Pablo Escobar himself: Under duress, he uses old buddy Derek to reap bundles of money selling Colombian cocaine to L.A. celebrities.

The contest for Derek's contacts will separate Jung and Diego and lead to Jung's downfall.

In the meantime, Jung acquires a Colombian hellcat wife (Penelope Cruz), with whom he shares vicious cocaine habits, and a daughter who makes him semi-mend his ways. By the end he's such a sweetie-pie, he dampens the spirits of the men who set him up for a bust.

Ted Demme was at his best directing "Action," that acid TV satire of Hollywood. In "Blow" he shoots the works. At different times, he emulates the natural lighting and shifting focus, the freeze frames and flip-book montages of rock-flavored Sixties movies, as well as the selective slow motion of Scorsese. But he doesn't develop his own style or point of view beyond a hipster's version of "funny-sad."

`I laughed!'

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