Contemporary American cinema is in thrall to the low-life biopic. Martin Scorsese probably began the trend with his great chronicles of gangsters and gambling, Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1996). But it was Paul Thomas Anderson who truly lowered the bar with Boogie Nights (1997), his paean to those loveable folks who survived the changing fortunes of the porn industry.
In this context, the true-life story of high-flying dealer George Jung (Johnny Depp), privileged American partner to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis), must have seemed ideal for big screen treatment. But where Scorsese manages to simultaneously celebrate and interrogate these grimy underworlds, and Anderson sends his fallen angels in search of some spurious redemption, Blow is an empty, tawdry, insulting mess.
There isn't much to George's story except an array of garish costumes, a string of risk-taking, paranoid adventures while on the run from police, and a long, desolate, lonely stretch in prison. The brief section devoted to the complex figure of Escobar makes the viewer dream of a different, far better movie.
The film zips through the years from the '60s to the present in a frustratingly abbreviated and superficial manner. His first great love, Barbara (Franka Potente), is stricken with a terminal illness within the first act. The good times for George and his subsequent, Colombian bride Mirtha (Penelope Cruz) are over in a blinding montage of sadomasochistic postures.
The ideal of family, which comes to assume so much importance for our anti-hero, is likewise rendered in a blaze of pretty, postcard tableaux. This is a film where an overripe design sense – determined to turn even the recent past into a daggy, foreign country – obliterates all story values.
The script (by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes) listlessly trawls through a repetitive series of betrayals – doubtless in a vain attempt to raise some pathos for George as eternal victim. No sooner are we introduced to such intriguing drugland characters as Derek (Paul Reubens) and Diego (Jordi Molla) than we receive heavy-handed indications of their underlying flakiness and disloyalty.
Director Ted Demme (whose own drug abuse killed him early in 2002) did some impressive work previously (particularly The Ref ), but his approach to this project is horribly derivative. Almost every one of its stylistic tricks is borrowed from Goodfellas, from freeze frames and whip pans to identical song selections. Only the casting of Ray Liotta as George's father works as a neat touch.
The rest of the cast have little to work with. Depp is on cruise control in another '60s rad role so soon after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and his shot at incarnating George in his paunchy, ageing phase is unconvincing. Rachel Griffiths, with an uncertain American accent, is an even odder apparition as Depp's mother and Liotta's wife.
© Adrian Martin August 2001