White Lies

With 'Blow,' Hollywood snuffs its own history of cocaine addiction.

Every now and then, a film comes along to tell the story of a forgotten hero, someone whose importance to the culture is immense, but whose name has somehow remained unknown to the great majority. One thinks of Schindler's List or Erin Brockovitch as examples of this genre, stories about people who persevered against formidable odds in order to give something to the world.

Such a film, also, is the new Johnny Depp movie Blow.

Depp stars as George Jung, a working-class kid from Massachusetts who almost single-handedly brought about the great cocaine vogue of the late '70s/early '80s.

If you were around in those days you probably snorted coke that was imported by George Jung, and, if you survived the experience, you probably snorted some more. Without George Jung, in fact, this country would have been almost cocaine free during those years. Imagine the horror!

Now, this sounds like a great plot for a movie: Small-town kid makes good in international import/export business. Sadly, Hollywood is a little too conservative to make a film lionizing a cocaine dealer, so Blow winds up being a rather predictable tale of Jung's slow slide into poverty and despair. Really, when you think about it, this is kind of hypocritical. I mean, it was Hollywood's stars and moguls who were the driving force behind the cocaine craze. Where do they get off being all moralizing about it?

Still, Blow would survive its own predictability if it could keep up its pace, but it really slows down when the story moves into just-desserts mode. It's too bad, because the first half hour is really hopping, mostly due to Depp's pretty-boy good looks and cinematographer Ellen Kuras' jumpy, flamboyant imagery. Unfortunately, director Ted Demme tones the whole film down as it progresses, perhaps to give a sense of George Jung's aging decadence, and by the end most of the electricity has gone out of the imagery.

Part of Blow's difficulty is that it tries to cover too much ground, starting with Jung's boyhood in Massachusetts and progressing through his teen years as a pot dealer on to his cocaine kingpin days and all the way up to his old age. While most people's lives would fit neatly into a two-hour film, Jung lived a little too large for such a short span to do him justice. As the movie moves into its third decade it becomes a series of vignettes, with the only cohesive thread being Jung's movement from success to failure.

The movie also loses most of its best characters and actors as it progresses. Paul Reubens as the flamboyant Derek Foreal, Ethan Suplee as George's portly stoner friend Tuna, and especially Franka Potente as Jung's girlfriend Barbara are all fabulous, but they all vanish less than halfway through the film, to be replaced by prettier but less competent actors like Penelope Cruz and supermodel James King.

My friend Amata, a former Venezuelan cocaine dealer, saw the film with me and objected to the fact that it centered on the extremely Caucasian Jung, whereas all his colleagues in the cocaine business were Hispanic. I could see her point; it seemed like the only way Hollywood could tell the story of the cocaine craze was to pick the one white guy who was a big-wig and then show how the he was destroyed by his dealings with the shady Latinos.

Actually, I think Blow would have been a more interesting movie if it had focused on Jung's good friend Pablo Escobar, who ran the major Colombian cocaine cartel for about 20 years. I'm sure the movie studios would try to make Escobar's life seem sad, pathetic and tragic, but something else would have to come through: We'd have Escobar, sadly and tragically surveying his own private country, sadly sitting in his multimillion-dollar compound, tragically protected by his crack force of loyal soldiers, pathetically enjoying all his wealth and the beautiful women who flock about him. Sure, Escobar was finally shot dead by police and soldiers, but considering that everyone's gonna die some day, that's not such a bad way to go.

The Pablo Escobar story would be a nice change of pace, and would point out something that Hollywood movies very rarely mention: Evil pays. Big time. There's no such thing as karma, and people who are truly, deeply immoral often live the most fulfilling and satisfying lives.

Of course, at the movies, that's not how things work out.

Blow is playing at Foothills (742-6174), Century Gateway (792-9000), Century Park (620-0750) and Century El Con (202-3343).

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