Movie Reviews from the Film Gang

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April 6, 2001- Blow reviewed by Cathy Sussloff

Blow, Directed by Ted Demme

Blow, like many another Johnny Depp vehicle—or most Hollywood movies these days-- drives hard and incessantly to a moralistic ending.  Ted Demme may be the director, but with Johnny Depp at the wheel, and visible in practically every shot, there is no question about who is in charge here.  And the fans love it.  Depp has something that no one can put a finger on, and that ineffable something is the key to his magic on screen.  Critics accuse him of under acting, of playing Depp instead of a character, of masking feelings.  Yet, in every one of his films from Wim Wenders superb Dead Man to Edward Scissorshands to Blow, Depp pulls off the kind of naturalistic experience of a personality conveyed that films yearn for but rarely deliver on.  Watch Depp’s little gestures, like when his character George Jung switches from smoking weed to snorting cocaine big time.  By the time we notice Depp rubbing his nose and twitching his shoulders—ever so subtly-- he has grown into a full-blown cocaine addict.  Depp doesn’t need to hit us over the head with this physical addiction.  His character can finesse any situation with fearless cool, so why should the actual drug effects be any different. This makes perfect sense if you think about it, but Depp never lets us feel like he or we had to think about it.  It—cocaine, addiction, and bravery of a villainous sort, betrayal—all come out in understatements that read on screen as more natural and more real than reality itself.  And isn’t that what movies like Blow depend on to keep us involved in their story?
In Blow, more real means a more brutal message—about addiction, the effects of bad money on relationships, and the corruption of the court system.  These are the morals of all Hollywood drug movies.  How, after all, can you countenance the guys who have the money and the desire for drugs—Hollywood elites—without a film that slams their values to smithereens. So that’s what we get in Blow, just as the recent Sonderberg film Traffic gave us the same message.  In Traffic, Michael Douglas stands on the outside looking in on a daughter and a political culture that have twisted the drug machine to work for them, each according to their own need.  In Blow, George embraces what drugs have to offer for his needs.  In the movies, none of those finding desires fulfilled by snort, weed, or blow ever really get to enjoy a high for very long.  In both Blow and Traffic, the Latinos and Americans corrupted by them, are the bad guys-- not the ethical dealer Johnny Young, or the cynical drug czar played by Michael Douglas.  These men somehow win our sympathies as the women in their lives cause them to fall and be fallible. 
There is no way to find a consistent message in the recent spate of drug films from Hollywood.  Depp’s depths can make any character he plays sympathetic and that is his major talent.  Even if we might deplore the effects of cocaine on the man, the family, the society, we still want Johnny to be okay as he stumbles across the prison yard at the end of the film.  The villain is elsewhere.  That message may mean more than any other.  Not to be seen as the evil that makes people undone or exploits their worst aspects supports the fiction that Hollywood has a message to convey at all.  Depp asks in a recent interview, with all that money at its disposal, why hasn’t the American government been able to control the illegal drug traffic?  Instead why not ask, with all that money at its disposal, why can’t Hollywood name the real culprit in the drug frenzies of the last two generations?  Heroes like Johnny Depp as George Jung aside, victims must be elsewhere.  To find the real victims and their exsploiters we’ve got to look somewhere else besides the movies.  But as long as we are in the Cineplex, I don’t mind spending more hours watching Depp do his bit in the show.  After all, that is the point of it all, isn’t it?

Blow plays at the Santa Cruz Cinema Nine and Aptos Cinemas.  For KUSP and the Film Gang this is Cathy Soussloff having fun at the movies

c Carla Freccero 2001