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by: Michael Dequina

For a good two-thirds of its running time, Ted Demme's Blow is a fairly compelling portrait of a man's real-life rise to the top of the drug trade. But when his fortunes take their inevitable turn, the film follows with its own inexplicable one: from gritty and dark to soggy and sentimental.

The true story of George Jung (Johnny Depp) is, of course, different from other drug world stories that have hit the screen, but it's hardly anything new. The Boston-bred George's first baby step on the dealing ladder is peddling marijuana in California, which quickly snowballs into a successful bicoastal operation-that is, until he has his first of what would be many arrests. It is during one of his longer prison stays that Jung is encouraged to set his sights higher: on the burgeoning market for cocaine. Soon after his release, Jung finds himself dealing with the likes of Colombian drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis) and playing the role of the primary link between the South American suppliers and an ever-growing, ever-hungry American clientele.

Jung's rise up the ranks and his various indulgences in all a big-time drug dealer's life has to offer give Blow an inevitable resemblance to other dark dramas that touch on drug use; with its voiceover narration and the presence of Ray Liotta (who plays Jung's working class father Fred), GoodFellas is a clear influence on Demme and screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes (adapting the book by Bruce Porter). While the film hardly compares to Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, Demme is able to at least give Blow some of that film's sense of alluring urgency--at least in the film's first two acts.

The turning point in Jung's character and in the film itself is the birth of his Kristina (Emma Roberts, Julia's niece), his daughter with his coke-addicted Colombian wife Mirtha (Penelope Cruz). With the arrival of his daughter comes a newfound maturity in Jung, and he sets out to do whatever he can to give her whatever she wants in life. It's indeed an admirable change, but such an epiphany doesn't suddenly erase all of his ample wrongdoing of the past. That fact seems lost on Demme as the film quickly settles into a whiny, "woe is me" tone. Jung complains about how everyone betrays him and wants to ruin his life, and the audience is expected to sympathize with his troubles, paying no regard to all the many lives he ruined through all his drug dealings.

While the character and the film take a wrongheaded turn, Depp's performane remains consistently strong though he is also at the mercy of some unconvincing age makeup (a point driven further home by the image of the real-life Jung that closes the film). Some other supporting players make equally strong impressions. Liotta has some affecting moments as Fred; Paul Reubens steals his scenes as Jung's flamboyant friend and cohort Derek Foreal; and Spanish actor Jordi Molla will leave viewers wondering where he came from with his charismatic turn as Diego, the man who introduces Jung to cocaine. The main actresses in Blow are weighed down by poorly thought-out roles, but their efforts end up worsening an already problematic situation. Rachel Griffiths is shockingly bad as Jung's fed-up mother; her overdone accent and melodramatic inclinations call to mind Marcia Gay Harden's overrated histrionics in Pollock. Cruz also shocks; after exhibiting all the expressiveness of a block of wood in her previous stateside efforts, who knew she was capable of such a scenery-plowing, over-the-top-and-into-earth's-orbit performance. (If anything, this Hollywood flavor of the month is consistent--in her ability to annoy.)

Too bad Blow cannot maintain its initial fascination. Demme has made a memorable film, but not in the way he clearly intended. Instead of being memorable as a riveting, true life look at the drug trade, it's memorable for how it shoots itself in the foot wi


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