Archive for April 2001

The Mummy Returns

April 29, 2001

001TMR_Rachel_Weisz_003An entire generation of kids are growing up on the new Mummy films, just as I grew up on the Indiana Jones films, and perhaps in 20 years, today’s kids will look back as fondly and geekily at The Mummy as we thirtysomethings (cough, wheeze) reminisce about Raiders of the Lost Ark. Thank God the new series actually earns its place at the adventure table. 1999’s The Mummy and its new sequel, The Mummy Returns, are unapologetic wedges of pop cheese — packed to the rafters with thrills, spills, explosions, monsters, and above all, humor. These movies not only laugh at themselves, they crack themselves up.

The sequel unfolds in 1933, eight years after the original; in that time, stalwart adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and plucky researcher Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) have married and had a son, Alex (Freddie Boathe). By my calculations, that means Rick and Evelyn must have conceived Alex five minutes after the first movie’s fade-out, and the movie likewise wastes little time. In a prologue, we meet the Scorpion King (played, in not much of an acting stretch, by the popular WWF wrestler The Rock), an ancient warrior who … um … does something to displease the gods, or something to please them, or something (I never give the plots of these movies the time of day), and centuries later he is due to rise again and conquer the world with his Army of Anubis, or something.

As per the movie’s title, though, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) is brought back to life, with the help of the reincarnation of his lost love Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez), to do battle with the Scorpion King. So … that makes Imhotep a good guy, right? Well, not really, since his minions are prepared to kill, not to mention kidnap Evelyn and/or Alex, to achieve their goal. So it’s up to Rick, Evelyn, her craven brother Jonathan (John Hannah), and returning desert warrior Ardath Bay (Oded Fehr) — all of whom, one hopes, enjoyed their eight years of relaxation — to stop Imhotep, Anck-Su-Namun, the Scorpion King, and anyone else who remotely resembles a reincarnation of ancient gods, plants, or minerals.

Stephen Sommers has written and directed both films as if he were a precocious boy bashing action figures together when he isn’t gobbling down neat-o myths and legends of Egypt; if he wants to go for a third outing with Rick, Evelyn, and God knows what other metaphysical beasts, he may have a trilogy to rival the other Steve’s. Sommers definitely has a lead worthy of Harrison Ford in his prime; Brendan Fraser brings intelligence, sarcasm, and a sense of play to his athletics, and Rachel Weisz — so neurasthenic in the recent Enemy at the Gates that she may as well have been Helena Bonham Carter — is pink-cheeked and active again, with the mane of a lioness and the maternal instincts (and fighting instincts) to match.

Will fans of old-school adventures — going back even further than Raiders, to the 1930s serials that inspired everything else in the genre — feel a tiny pang of loss at this high-tech party? Possibly. In one or two sequences, Sommers goes in for the smash-and-grab editing and herky-jerky action of Gladiator, and quite often the computerized beasts are as flatly unreal as the now-quaint-looking latex and light shows of the Indy series. But Sommers also stages several peerless bits: a chase aboard a double-decker bus pursued by Imhotep’s fearsome guards; a run-in with vicious pygmy mummies gleefully ripped off from Jurassic Park and Gremlins; the final three-way throwdown between Rick, Imhotep, and the Scorpion King (whose unconvincing digitally-mapped facial features are clunky enough to reassure us that Hollywood can’t do away with actors just yet¹).

The whole two-hours-plus affair just soars along, brainlessly and breathlessly, just like in the ancient days of 1981. The Mummy films come along just in time to save kids from growing up with nothing but Pokemon and George Lucas’ joyless reprise of his Star Wars tax write-off. For that alone, they have my gratitude. For returning me to the wide-eyed age of eleven for a handful of hours, they have my affection.

¹This is putting it kindly. Seen at a remove of a decade or more, the Scorpion King in this movie looks irredeemably shitty.

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Driven

April 27, 2001

The most frightening spectacle in Driven isn’t the shot of a race car spiraling into the air, colliding head-on with another speeding racer, and flying what looks like several miles into a nearby pond. No, the really scary sight is how Burt Reynolds looks these days, or, at least, how he’s been made to look in this movie. Playing a bitter, wheelchair-bound former racer who now owns a race franchise, Reynolds seems only a nip or tuck away from Gary Oldman in Hannibal; he looks like an animatronic puppet carved out of pink soap. Is this what happens to plastic-surgery patients as they get older? Reynolds’ skin is stretched so taut you could bounce a quarter off it — you wonder how the man eats, for God’s sake.

Sylvester Stallone, who appeared in his previous movie Get Carter alongside Mickey Rourke (have you seen his face lately?), may unconsciously be surrounding himself with these past-it Dorian Grays to make himself feel less freakish and outmoded. Stallone’s fall has been unusually prolonged and painful, even by has-been standards. He keeps doing these movies in which he’s washed up, or either fighting or mentoring a young turk; out of respect for the early good movies he did, you want to sit him down and say, Sly, babe, it’s over. You had your shot at a Pulp Fiction comeback (Cop Land), and it didn’t work. Please take up poetry, carpentry — anything but this ongoing psychotherapy morosely played out on the screen.

If you harbor any residual affection for Stallone — the unspoiled, scruffy lump in the original Rocky talking to his turtle, or even his solid work in early-’80s thrillers like Nighthawks before he got all Ramboed up — a movie like Driven isn’t fun even on a nasty ironic level; it’s sad. It’s essentially yet another Stallone fantasy in which he puts on a show of being humble, helping out younger characters, and then gets to prove there’s still heroism in the old Sly after all. Stallone is Joe Tanto, a chewed-up former racer called out of retirement to help young-turk racer Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue), who’s carrying on a heated competition with German hotshot Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger). There seems to be nobody else racing (though you see other cars on the track, as a backdrop); it’s just Jimmy and Beau. And then Joe.

For a minute or two, I was almost with Driven as a shameless throwback to Stallone’s peak decade, the ’80s. The Jimmy-Beau face-off is introduced in the sort of montage familiar from Rocky III and IV — spinning fake covers of Sports Illustrated or Newsweek, snippets of excitable sportscasters. But the entire movie is downloaded into our brains in this same zap-zap way; it’s like Any Given Sunday with wheels. Director Renny Harlin and, I assume, many computer artists work overtime to smash the metal together; there are a fair number of shots that wouldn’t have been possible without CGI, and aren’t plausible with CGI.

Harlin gives the dialogue scenes the same helter-skelter treatment, only without computer enhancement, though, in the case of Gina Gershon as Joe’s vicious ex-wife, I’m not so sure. It may be time for Gershon’s tumescent legions of fans to admit she can’t really act, not that they care. Stacy Edwards (In the Company of Men) stops by every now and then as a sportswriter, looking a bit disoriented. Fitting in more snugly is the model Estella Warren, as a bimbo who goes from Beau to Jimmy and back again; Estella manages not to embarrass herself (except in a lame joke when she’s required to “ribbit” like a frog), though this doesn’t necessarily mean she’s ready for Uncle Vanya .

Generally, though, this is a boys’ movie, with the understated, depressed-sounding Stallone reading his own script with the world-weariness of a fallen king far from love and glory. (I suppose it only helps his exhausted characterization that he plays most of his scenes opposite Kip Pardue, who is as exciting as cold cereal without a bowl.) In a bit of unplanned (or perhaps not) synergy, Driven arrives around the same time that the Rocky series returns to DVD; spin the 1976 original again, then turn to Stallone 25 years later, lecturing Jimmy about going back to when he enjoyed “pure victory” untainted by fame and pressure. Then again, you’d better not. Driven is saddening enough without augmentation.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

April 13, 2001

Bridget-Jones-Playboy_400British male thirtysomethings had Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as their Bible; British female thirtysomethings had Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, and now both have been made into excellent movies starring Americans. Whereas the High Fidelity movie successfully transplanted its action from London to Chicago, Bridget sensibly stays in the U.K., the better to profit from the likes of Hugh Grant, coscripter Richard Curtis (a whiz at crafting Brit humor that isn’t too Brit for Yanks — see Four Weddings and a Funeral), and Colin Firth in a BBC-addict in-joke playing a suitor named Mark Darcy (whom Fielding patterned on Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, played in the BBC rendition by … Colin Firth).

Somewhere near the start of any review of the movie, there must be a relieved acknowledgment that Renée Zellweger, a born Texan, not only nails the most beloved woman of modern British fiction but embodies and owns her. This will come as scant surprise to those who followed her in Nurse Betty and came away feeling she could do anything, including but not limited to walking on water, though she’s best when playing lovably befuddled women who find it difficult even to negotiate a hallway without disaster. In my review of High Fidelity, I said you could read the book without imagining John Cusack in the lead, but it was impossible to imagine the movie without him; here I must up the ante and say that it’s now impossible to read the book without picturing Zellweger as Bridget.

The script, credited to Fielding, Curtis, and Andrew Davies (who adapted the current The Tailor of Panama and also, ahem, wrote the abovementioned Pride and Prejudice adaptation), tracks the book’s events fairly closely. Bridget, a 32-year-old “singleton” who works in publishing, is torn between slick bastard Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant, having a ball decimating the dithering-nice-guy persona he’s dined out on in America since Four Weddings) and the rather bland-seeming Mark Darcy, who has the grave misfortune of being introduced to Bridget (and us) while dying of embarrassment in a sweater of shattering bad taste. Bridget’s mum (Gemma Jones), meanwhile, has left her kindly but inattentive husband (Jim Broadbent) for a hideous TV huckster with a variety of incrementally fake tans.

So, here’s another romantic comedy in which our heroine learns, both by experience and example, that slick boys are bad and nice boys who like you despite your flaws definitely have their strong points. Readers of Fielding’s book will miss its spiky wit and inextricably British asides (one of my favorites: “Keen on a man who comes round late, in stark contrast to people who come round early, startling and panicking one and finding unsightly items still unhidden in the home”); perhaps nothing short of a filmed audiobook could deliver the style intact. Still, what saved the book from being the whining of a bitter singleton (as opposed to Laura Zigman’s annoying Animal Husbandry with its stupid bull/cow theory of romance, recently adapted as Someone Like You) was Bridget’s helplessly funny, self-deprecating take on her life, and the movie has an equivalent in its star, who lets us feel Bridget’s unhappiness and vulnerability without soliciting our pity.

The first-time director, Sharon Maguire, is a friend of Fielding, who based Bridget’s foulmouthed friend Sharon on her. Maguire does a smooth job of it, though shooting (somewhat unaccountably) in widescreen and hiring Jane Campion’s ace cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; here and there, the movie gleams when it should just groan and sniffle with a hangover. Maguire does have a way with easygoing slapstick, as when a drunken, forlorn Bridget lip-synchs to “All By Myself” under the opening credits, and the director stages what must be the most hilariously maladroit and drawn-out fistfight since Roddy Piper and Keith David went at it in John Carpenter’s They Live. But mostly her achievement is to stay out of Renée Zellweger’s way and let her be Bridget.

Fielding published a ‘Bridget Jones’ sequel (in which, ironically, Colin Firth appears as himself), and there are sure to be more; if Zellweger’s ‘Nurse Betty’ costar Morgan Freeman warrants a franchise (see ‘Along Came a Spider’), then this enchanting actress, brimming with heart and soul, surely deserves her own series too.

Amores Perros

April 13, 2001

It’s still early yet, but Amores Perros may well turn out to be the movie of the decade. Too bad it was released (in Mexico) only six months into the decade. As layered and capable of surprise as Pulp Fiction — to which it has been compared because it, too, consists of a trio of stories — Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sinfully enjoyable epic roars in on a wave of blood, gunshots and dog barks, pauses for a morosely controlled study of upper-class discontent, then pulls it all together in its final, steadily lacerating segment, which focuses on the emotional violence of family. Actually, all three segments do; the title Amores Perros works out as a pun in the American translation — “Love’s a Bitch.” It sure is. The movie’s big theme is what we’ll do for love, even when love won’t do much for us.

González Iñárritu could fairly be called a melodramatist: His stories revolve around amped-up despair, with a central brutal accident altering the lives of all its characters, and among the personalities on view here are a homeless assassin, a fashion model, and an ambitious kid who enlists his dog to compete in gory dogfights so that he can earn money to provide for his pregnant girlfriend, who also happens to be his brother’s wife. If the words “soap opera” have surfaced in your head at this point, you’re not wrong, and González Iñárritu is way ahead of you. After all, the main problem with soaps is that the storylines never really end; the characters go on for years, often played by new actors when the previous ones leave to “pursue other interests,” and nobody ever stays dead. But take away the assembly-line Monday-to-Fridayness of soaps and you do often have the stuff of serious fiction — even fantasy fiction, as any Passions fan will tell you — and Amores Perros does for soap themes what Pulp Fiction did for pulp themes.

In the first section, “Octavio y Susana,” we’re deposited in the slums of Mexico City without a map. This is a world where Susana (Vanessa Bauche) has to leave her baby boy in the care of her unsmiling mother-in-law, who grouses that she already raised her children and shouldn’t have to raise another; the only alternative is to leave the baby with Susanna’s own mother, who gets zonked on cheap wine while the baby screams in another room. Susana’s husband Ramiro (Marco Pérez) works in a supermarket but brings home most of his bacon from store robberies; he’s the classic macho Latino who would kill Susana if he found her with another man, but has no problem throwing a quick bang to a comely co-worker. Ramiro’s brother Octavio (Gael García Bernal) also makes his money illegally, though his method — pitting his Rottweiler against other dogs while hooting men bet on the outcome — has more structure, and is probably officially ignored by the authorities. Aside from the fact that Ramiro is an abusive bastard and Octavio is a gentler soul, you can tell the difference between the brothers based on what they do after they’ve scored some cash. Ramiro brings home a Walkman for Susana and wakes the baby to give him his gift; Octavio simply hands Susana a wad of money, giving her a choice as to what she does with it, and takes care to leave the baby peacefully asleep.

Here and there in the first chapter, we see glimpses of Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero), a magazine editor visibly bored with his wife and distant from his daughters, and Valeria (Goya Toledo), a model sparkling at us from a giant billboard and from a TV talk show; we don’t really understand why until section two, “Daniel y Valeria,” kicks in. These two, we come to learn, are an item: Daniel has left his wife and bought an apartment — a decent one, despite the occasional hole in the floor — for himself and the jubilant Valeria. González Iñárritu shifts gears radically: if the first segment was clouded over with the heat and steam of desperation, this one is cool to the touch. When Valeria is confined to a wheelchair, and her beloved doggie Richie disappears into one of the holes in the floor (ah, dear reader, after this sequence is over you won’t care if you never hear the name “Richie” again), Daniel begins to crack: he’s left his family, and for what? A hobbled model and a dog who may have become a snack for rats? To his credit, González Iñárritu takes this middle-upper-class anguish seriously after the much more down-to-earth torment of “Octavio y Susana.” He’s saying that no matter how rich or poor you are, fate — and love — will fuck you up.

Love seems to be beyond the grasp of El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), the grizzled anti-hero of the concluding segment, “El Chivo y Maru.” But Maru is not one of his many loyal dogs who follow him around the city as he pushes his cart and sifts through the garbage; Maru is his long-estranged daughter, who believes him to be dead. El Chivo drifts through his existence, doing “jobs” (murders) for a dirty cop; his latest assignment is to execute one yuppie at the behest of another, though he has a Jules-like change of heart when he discovers the relationship between target and targeter. There’s also a moment as fine as any in cinema when, after El Chivo returns home to find some carnage one of his dogs has wreaked, the black dog looks at him sadly and is thinking — I swear he is — “It’s my nature. Why hate me for it? You’re no different.” From there, the story becomes about El Chivo’s refutation of the dog’s silent accusation; he even shears off his gray mop of hair and beard, and looks like such an entirely different person that even a man he has taken captive does a double take.

Amores Perros runs just over two and a half hours, and both times I’ve seen it the hours streaked by. There’s a brief stretch — during El Chivo’s tailing of his target throughout the city — where you may feel a slight tug of boredom; it feels too conventional, and is probably only there so we can hear a bit more Latino hip-hop mood music (the two-disc soundtrack album, already hard to come by, is worth the effort of tracking it down). Rodrigo Prieto’s photography is unimpeachably drab and authentic — finding beauty in blandness and ugliness and the lurid clutter of bedrooms — save for one quick, apparently obligatory shot of the sky at dusk: the image might have impressed in a lesser movie, but in this one it stands out as banal. But Prieto also gives us one of the great closing shots: El Chivo and his sad, violent black dog leaving us for whatever the horizon offers.

I’ve left out a lot here — including the nature of the aforementioned central accident and exactly how it affects everyone — only to keep Amores Perros a virgin experience for the first-time viewer; ideally, you should go into it knowing absolutely nothing except that the excruciatingly convincing dogfight scenes were, indeed, skillfully faked. (And perhaps you shouldn’t even know that; for its American release — though not on the DVD — the movie began with a disclaimer that no dogs were harmed during filming, as if we’d assume that those crazy Mexican filmmakers would destroy live dogs for realism.) In that respect, Amores Perros is a lot like Pulp Fiction, which also arrived garlanded with awards, critical hosannas, and buzz about its violence (in both cases, the violence hype was a bit overblown). But González Iñárritu is a more thoughtful filmmaker than Quentin Tarantino, whose best work slyly up-ends clichés and is deeply entertaining for that reason; González Iñárritu takes clichés and burrows around inside them, looking for the grain of truth — the connection to reality — that created them in the first place.

As I say, we’ve got another few years to go and I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, but I don’t anticipate seeing another debut film in the ’00s as richly textured, ambitious, deeply felt, and downright satisfying as Amores Perros. Alejandro González Iñárritu has thrown down the challenge. Anyone care to top it?

Along Came a Spider

April 6, 2001

Great filmmaking is sometimes found in the unlikeliest places. I would like to refer you to the first five minutes of the otherwise dull-as-dishwater Along Came a Spider, five minutes that play like a brilliant short film. True, this prelude (which has little to do with the rest of the film) derives from a time-tested cliché — a cop’s traumatic loss of his partner, setting him up to be hesitantly pulled back into action later — but we have to recognize skill where we find it.

The cop in question is forensic psychologist Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman), who’s trying to nab a serial killer; his partner (Jill Teed, who makes the most of her few minutes) is a decoy in Cross’s sting operation, riding in a car with the suspect. The plan goes spectacularly bad, and director Lee Tamahori stages everything — the dread that develops when the partner’s cover is blown; the resulting unplanned bit of violence leading to a cataclsymic accident — with a sadist’s eye for detail. I am something of a connoisseur of scenes featuring characters who realize they’re about to die — it’s a test of any actor (will they overplay it? underplay?) — and Jill Teed does it as well as I’ve seen it done. The set-up, the violent climax, the bleak ending — this prelude is almost a terrific noir film in miniature.

I’ve gone on so long about the opening of Along Came a Spider because the remainder of the film offers little to talk about. Even if I were inclined to deal with the plot at length, this is one of those thrillers — the kind that you can’t review without contorting yourself into pretzels to avoid spoiling the “surprises.” After eight months of mourning his partner, Cross is drawn back into the game when a remote evil genius (Michael Wincott) kidnaps a senator’s little daughter. Joining Cross on the case is Secret Service Agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), who had been assigned to protect the girl and now feels bad about it. Many cat-and-mouse games follow, accompanied by many scenes of the usually fun-to-watch Michael Wincott growling into a phone being all diabolical and ingenious. Is there some school where movie evil geniuses learn all their neat tricks?

Name three other movie series wherein a 63-year-old African-American gets to play a recurring hero. There are no others; Morgan Freeman has the only one — Alex Cross previously headlined 1997’s Kiss the Girls, based, like the present film, on a novel by James Patterson. I don’t begrudge Freeman his own hero-man franchise — hey, bring on the Alex Cross action figure if you want to — but I do wish the movies worked harder to be worthy of their central star. Freeman, a co-producer on Along Came a Spider, looks mildly bored in it; he scarcely smiles (hell, even the grim-as-a-rainy-funeral Seven gave him a fine hearty laughing scene). Maybe he’s as uninspired by his co-star Monica Potter, with whom he trades most of his lines, as I was; Potter, very obviously being groomed as Julia Roberts Jr., is almost perfectly bland until her final scenes, when she tries too late to be interesting.

Remember a paragraph ago, when I said “Many cat-and-mouse games follow”? There’s your review; that’s Along Came a Spider in a nutshell. My code of honor as a reviewer prevents me from spoiling the plot twists that aren’t worth preserving in the first place (and the plot, upon later deconstruction, makes no sense whatsoever). Oh, well. At least we have those first five minutes — encouraging evidence that the director, Lee Tamahori, isn’t completely dead yet. Tamahori had, with 1994’s Once Were Warriors, one of the strongest and most original debuts in recent memory; his films thereafter (Mulholland Falls, The Edge, and the final 99 minutes of this film) have eluded recent memory. Tamahori’s handling of violence, though, is as vital and painful as ever. What he needs, like all directors, is a script that actually means something.

Blow

April 6, 2001

vlcsnap2012121414h59m09The rise-and-fall drug movie Blow has been called a rip-off of GoodFellas, but I prefer to think of it as a worthy heir — certainly lacking the almost mythic weight of Martin Scorsese’s film, but then the story of Henry Hill had a classical yet ironic arc (the former hotshot, now a mob informer in hiding, still hasn’t learned anything by film’s end: “I get to be an average shnook”) and the story of George Jung is a little messier and more mundane. Jung, profiled in a 1993 biography of the same name by Bruce Porter, was a kingpin of weed and nose-candy in the ’70s; by the ’80s, pretty much everyone who could sell him out had sold him out, and he, too, gets to live the rest of his life like a shnook (he isn’t up for release from prison until 2014, when he will be 72). Jung is an apt anti-hero for the first decade of the new century, which is shaping up to be a rerun of the ’80s; he represents a generation of ambitious slackers who want to make a killing without actually having to work much, and aren’t too picky about where the gold comes from.

Blow could be a cautionary tale in format, as some other excesses-of-the-’70s epics (Casino, Boogie Nights) appeared to be; it comes complete with its own moral, “Money isn’t real — it doesn’t matter.” It matters a lot to Jung, played by Johnny Depp as a cool cucumber cloaked in shades and rock-star hair, who loves his honest working-class dad (Ray Liotta in a casting coup) but doesn’t want to end up like him. Jung sees the workaday world as a place for saps: You bust your ass all your life and nobody cares. So he leaves his hometown of Weymouth, Massachusetts, and heads for California, where he more or less stumbles onto the drug culture of the late ’60s.

The beaches of California are loaded with buxom stewardesses who love to get high; Jung has found his niche, and together with a buddy from home named Tuna (Ethan Suplee) he gets into the pot trade, with bags of weed bought from hairdresser Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens, who has an amusing way of discarding his character’s put-on flamer persona when Derek gets down to serious drug business). Busted for possession, Jung does some time in jail, which the movie presents as a hilariously inadequate method of showing drug offenders the error of their ways. “I went in with a bachelor’s in marijuana,” Jung tells us in his narration, “and came out with a doctorate in cocaine” — his professor being Diego (Jordi Mollà), who can get Jung in with the Medellin coke cartel.

As directed by Ted Demme, Blow has the hyperactive jostle and electric riffing of a particularly well-made GoodFellas copy — to these eyes, preferable to the overarching pretensions of Boogie Nights. Demme may ape Scorsese’s flourishes, but he puts them in service of the story (whereas Paul Thomas Anderson often seems to put the story in service of the flourishes). Besides, Demme had already made the best Mean Streets redux (Monument Ave). This director does have his own style, as anyone who enjoyed his early comedies The Ref and Beautiful Girls can attest, and his finest moments here are his bleakest and least Scorsesean: a shot of the fortyish, broken-down Jung standing alone and confused, having hallucinated a visit from his estranged daughter; a scene between Jung and his father, drinking at the dinner table and having a talk they should’ve had years before. Liotta, thickening and graying with the years (the movie spans about 30), gets to show his gentle side here (we saw a bit of it in Cop Land, also). Depp, playing this movie’s Henry Hill, has some of the same problems Liotta had in GoodFellas — he’s essentially a nice guy who gets in over his head, without many shadings. It’s not his best work — you’d probably have to consult his polar-opposite turns in Donnie Brasco and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for that — but few actors can do so much with so little, and Depp manages to flesh out this hollow man with intimations of, well, fear and loathing.

Some of that fear and loathing, it’s impossible not to notice, is directed at women. Jung’s mother (Rachel Griffiths, who appears to be channeling Lorraine Bracco) is a bitch who hounds her husband for not making more money. Jung’s Colombian wife Mirtha (Penélope Cruz) seems borderline crazy, a spitfire as addicted to the high life as to coke. Even his own daughter disses him. To be sure, many of Jung’s male cronies turn on him as well, and Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) turns up as a bubbly blonde who has a calming effect on Jung and the movie until she’s handed a get-out-of-the-movie-early card in the form of an ominous nosebleed. Despite the bitch/scold view of women, though, I don’t feel Blow is misogynistic; it is Jung’s story, after all, told from his point of view, and we’re clearly meant to see that — in seeking to avoid the henpecked, bankrupt fate of his father — Jung picked the wrong set of values. His fate, of course, is to re-enact his father’s money woes and marriage troubles when Mirtha seems to be reading lines that could’ve been written by his mother.

Blow isn’t really a classic, but it’s a sobering story well-told, and a decent return to form for a director who’d seemed lost (Demme’s previous film was the tedious Life). Demme’s friend and frequent cohort Denis Leary was one of the movie’s producers, and I flashed back on a line from Leary’s concert film No Cure for Cancer (directed by Demme): “Cocaine? We invented that. You’re welcome.” George Jung could almost have said the same thing — he says something similar when he claims that “if you did any coke in the late ’70s or early ’80s, there’s an 80 or 90% chance it came from us.” Fat lot of good it did him (or the country). As the years pass, we see Jung’s mane of blonde hair mutate into a limp mullet; we might doubt the veracity of this — wouldn’t a man in his forties get a more age-appropriate haircut? — but at the very end, we see the mug of the actual George Jung, much less handsome than Johnny Depp, and, yep, there’s the mullet. Without preaching overmuch, the film says that if you’re not careful in the pursuit of the American Dream, you might end up in jail till you’re almost 70, with hideous hair and a nose destroyed by coke, chatting eagerly with a daughter who isn’t there.