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.

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