Toot, Toot, Beep, Beep

If Horatio Alger were reborn as a drug dealer, he might resemble George Jung (Johnny Depp) in "Blow." A fun-loving lad from modest New England roots, this American dreamer lands in southern California in the heady, hedonistic '60s, where he begins his brilliant career peddling pot to blond stewardesses. Soon, backed by a rich hairdresser/drug dealer (Paul Reubens), he is moving massive amounts of Mexican weed and enjoying the fruits of his labor: a house in Acapulco, a German girlfriend ("Run, Lola, Run's" Franka Potente) and an endless supply of cash.

But this is just a prelude. Ted Demme's "Blow" charts the rise and fall of the man who-- with the help of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar--almost singlehandedly imported the cocaine craze to the United States in the '70s and '80s. It's a true story (liberally adapted from Bruce Porter's nonfiction book by screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes), but the movie doesn't always ring true.

"Blow" is at its seductive best capturing the giddy exuberance of those early days of guilt-less pleasures. Depp deftly conveys George's kid-in-a-candy-store delight at the ease with which he's transcended the grim, workaday world of his parents (Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths). But all good things must end. The nice girlfriend dies, George's mother rats him out and he lands in prison, where he meets the Colombian Diego (Jordi Molla), who will introduce him to the more dangerous and lucrative world of the cocaine trade.

The first half of "Blow" is a shallow but lively fun ride; the audience gets a contact high. But when George's fortunes start to go from bad to worse, so does the movie. Depp, being Depp, makes George charming, but the filmmakers try to turn him into some sort of tragic victim, and it doesn't wash.

One of their strategies to make their hero sympathetic is to surround him with ghastly, betraying women--his awful mother, his spoiled bitch of a wife (Penelope Cruz in a shrill, underwritten role). It's been a while since a movie's misogyny has been so blatant. We're asked to get all teary because the daughter whose life he's shattered won't come to visit poor George in prison. He's a good man after all--he loves his daughter! This non sequitur is presented as if it's an epiphany.

George Jung didn't play by the rules--that's one of the things that made him interesting--but the movie feels obligated to play by the Hollywood book, which demands that a leading man be sympathetic at all costs. The cost is dramatic and moral confusion. At the end we see an image of the real George Jung today, and it's a mug--unlike Johnny Depp's--that's not so easy to love. The story etched in that face is not the one we've just been told.