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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001

The life and death of the party


Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Ted Demme Running time: 123 minutes Language: English Now showing

The 1960s and '70s as seen through a procession of bad haircuts and recreational substances? Well, why not -- history courses through many veins. Director Ted Demme's "Blow" taps into the real-life tale of George Jung, a laid-back boy from Massachusetts who went on to become America's No. 1 drug trafficker, a confidante of Pablo Escobar with $60 million in an offshore bank account.

Johnny Depp in "Blow"

Johnny Depp plays "Boston George," who moves from a Beatle-esque mop-top and rolling joints on a California beach to a fluffy '70s shag and supplying America with 80 percent of its cocaine needs. As far as "rise and fall" stories go, this one's pretty damn precipitous. Like all good crime movies, you spend the first 60 minutes wishing you were George, and the next 60 feeling oh-so-lucky that you're not (especially when you see his hairstyle circa 1981). George Jung was hardly your typical drug kingpin; in fact, he comes off as the "anti-Scarface." Where other criminals seized and protected their territory with stomach-churning brutality, it was George's low-key charm that allowed him to swim with the sharks. (Unfortunately for him, they eventually took their pound of flesh -- and then some.)

Demme's briskly paced biopic takes us through George's almost-brilliant career from his own perspective, told with bittersweet hindsight. This allows us to empathize with George, but perhaps too much so -- his only faults, it seems are being too nice, too trusting, too loyal and too good at moving drugs. All his failures result from betrayals by those around him -- his mother, his lover, his business partners. Unlike "Goodfellas," another insider look at crime upon which Demme closely models his film, we're never forced to question our narrator in "Blow." The film's only criticism of George is an implicit one -- that he was a poor judge of character.

Might not that have been connected to his own regimen of substance abuse? Like "Boogie Nights" and "Casino" before it, "Blow" is another look at paradise lost, a perfect (perfectly corrupt) scene blown apart by the arrival of cocaine, that demon drug, and its accompanying scourges of paranoia, megalomania and psychotic mood swings. Certainly, things started off well for George, splitting snowy New England for the allure of '60s California in the Summer of Love, where he finds surfer girls and dope, lots of dope. He quickly hooks up with a hip stewardess named Barbara (Franka Potente, "Run, Lola, Run") and earns some pocket money selling joints to the beach hippies.

Helped by hometown friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee, "American History X" ), George quickly takes his operation to the next level: Barbara introduces George to Derek Foreal (Paul "Pee-Wee" Reubens), a queeny hairdresser who is also a major supplier of grass. Soon George is running shipments to friends back East, who move it onto the college campuses. Pure marketing genius.

George's operation goes nationwide, with a direct connection via air to a farm in Mexico. This leads to riches beyond belief, a beachside mansion, never-ending parties and a rosy future with the woman who loves him. Too good to be true? It is: George gets busted, Barbara gets cancer and George jumps bail to be with her in her final days.

Turned over to the cops by his own mom, George finds that "prison was a crime school. I went in with a bachelor's in marijuana, and came out with a doctorate in cocaine." Once outside, George is quickly enlisted by his former cell-mate Diego (Jordi Molla) to help move Colombian coke through his American network.

His success lands him access to the rich and famous, a glamorous Colombian wife, Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), and a swelling Panamanian bank account. As George reflects: "We were young, rich and in love. Nothing could stop us."

Of course, plenty could: jealousy, greed, the Feds, drug psychosis, trigger-happy thugs, wire-wearing friends and worse. With a bit of perspective, George's tragedy is all too predictable.

That we care about this dealer is no doubt due to Depp's essential charisma, and his take on George as a guy who's never at peace with himself. He's constantly trying to please his parents -- his good-natured but poor Dad (Ray Liotta), and his money-obsessed and caustic Mom (Rachel Griffiths) -- and to make sure he doesn't end up like them.

Depp's dealer may be ballsy and bold when it comes to getting drugs across the border, but he's got a gaping emotional hole that no dope will fill. While "Blow" may be a movie about drugs -- and its opening sequence that tracks the course of cocaine from the Colombian jungle to a U.S. airstrip is more illuminating than anything in "Traffic" -- it's less concerned with the politics and morality of the drug trade than the choices this one man made. The lessons, if any, lie in the consequences.

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