Blow is half-baked and wants to be brilliant. Slick with the sweat of its own ambition, Ted Demme's biography of George Jung, one of America's pioneer cocaine runners, is lots of bravado - bad wigs, rapid-fire editing, slow-motion swaggering - in search of ideas. Loaded with a dozen characters, and mainly set across two decades (the 1970s and 1980s), Demme's movie attempts to hide the lack of ideas by cramming in a ton of epic zing.
But everything just feels compressed. Scenes butt against scenes without motive. Monumental events occur without explanation. In Demme's distressingly simple universe, a young George watches his father (Ray Liotta) save money and never have enough, and that's why George becomes a drug dealer - he never wants to be poor.
As an adult, George, played by Johnny Depp (who becomes a prop in his own movie), leaves New England and moves to a bungalow on Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles. From there, Demme rams together 20 years without allowing anything to register:
George learns to sell drugs with the help of a stewardess (Franka Potente of Run Lola Run). Then she dies. Then with the help of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, George learns to import cocaine and becomes so good at it that 85 percent of the coke in this country in the late 1970s arrived courtesy of his $100 million business. Then he steals another drug lord's fianc e, played by Penelope Cruz. Then they have a child, get married, get divorced. Then he decides to quit the drug life. And even with a business of this magnitude, that's it: He just quits. You're left wondering if you missed something.
For a film that has gathered the most sought-after of Hollywood cachets - good buzz - the finished result is just labored and ambiguous. Traffic made its points about drug culture through the careful layering of empathy and outrage. Blow has no point of view. Instead, it cobbles together ingredients from a dozen better movies, then sets them loose to fill time until something profound reveals itself.
These elements become a cinematic shorthand for depth: Demme's art director has obviously found the right shade of lime, circa 1968. Rolling Stone riffs grind - “Can't You Hear Me Knocking” chimes throughout the opening credits to scenes of coke production. The big set pieces, one after another, look as if they took tons of time to arrange. There are '60s-ish photo montages and jump cuts; freeze frames straight out of Goodfellas and careering cameras at home in Boogie Nights. For special effects, there's Paul Reubens, once known as Pee-wee Herman, camping it up shamelessly as the king of cabana boy joint dealers. But it's all shallow posturing.
By the time Blow crawls to its finale - after the rollicking beach scenes, George wallows in self-pity for a good hour - you're left with a movie that has the brains of a resume and the soul of a cover letter.
Need references? Ted is the brother of director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). And until now, Ted has practically snorted the middle of the road, turning out a string of forgettable light comedies like Life and Beautiful Girls. As ambition goes, Blow marks a welcome direction for Ted, but at the moment, he's looking desperate for respect. Blow reeks of a transparent bid by a middling director to bound into the upper echelon of directors who make bold films with brazen aplomb.
In other words: Ted Demme, you're out of your league.