This looks awfully familiar: Blow documents the rise and fall of a character who hits it big and then loses it all within a cloistered, high-rolling sub-culture whose inner workings are portrayed in detailed, highly stylized fashion, rich with musical and visual signifiers of the past few decades. Though not Goodfellas, Boogie Nights, or Casino, Blow is a credible simulation during its first half. Director Ted Demme made a wise choice in casting Johnny Depp as George Jung, the real-life drug smuggler whose import skills have been credited with cocaine's remarkable spike in popularity in the late '70s and early '80s. Depp's typically soulful performance helps Blow coast until the bottom falls out from under both the film and its lead. Not that that's easy to predict early on. Directed with the bravado of a skilled study, Blow's portrayal of Depp's quick climb to the top of pot distribution in the waning days of the '60s, and his later expansion into cocaine, has enough stylistic flair to compensate for its own familiarity, allowing the film to function as an effective facsimile of older, better movies. True, Demme might as well flash the words "dramatic irony" when Depp says, "Nothing could stop us," and he never really plants his own stamp on the material, but his clear pleasure at flexing his directorial muscles is infectious in the early going. Demme doesn't handle the road down nearly as well. When Blow dwells on the domestic squabbles of Depp and Colombian wife Penélope Cruz, it becomes clear just how little has been invested in the characters. Depp's descent from childlike wonder into hardened addiction seems to take place offscreen, while Cruz's harpy makes sense only as a cartoon, her wobbliness embodying a shrill cliché that echoes the unease of a miscast Rachel Griffiths as Depp's mother. Demme's seeming lack of confidence is just as crippling. Refraining from glamorizing coke culture might be admirable, but substituting snapshot freeze-frames and sudden lapses into slow motion with agonized marital confrontations and what-about-our-kid hand-wringing proves disastrous in Blow's dull second act. By the time Depp takes a fall for his fourth or fifth attempt at a last big score, his arrest punctuated by the sad eyes of his disillusioned daughter, Blow takes a turn toward the unintentionally comic. Ray Liotta scores some nice moments as Depp's father, his presence a fitting homage to Demme's most obvious source of inspiration. In fact, Depp even sounds uncannily like Liotta did in his voiceover narration in Goodfellas. If you haven't seen that movie in a while, you might want to check it out. It's a good one.
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