Nose candy

Blow an over-the-top look at life in the fast lane

Blow would have been a very different movie had the eponymous drug it chronicles been the far less glam heroin or had its time frame, spanning the '60s-'80s, been pushed up to the "just say no" hangover of the contemporary drug wars. Blow exploits the flashy, seemingly harmless aspects of the white stuff: a feel-good, party-on kind of movie about the flashbulb-quick rise and fall of "Boston George."

Blow charts the real-life progression of George Jung (Johnny Depp) from a California pot dealer to America's nose candy impresario in the heyday of the Colombian drug cartels.

In the film's opening, George escapes an Archie Bunker life of scrapin' by and bottles of beer downed by the TV light in his parents' blue collardom for the California youth culture that looks like a vintage Benson & Hedges ad, all beige-y beach bonfires and couples embracing. Blow is as garish as neon and tirelessly literal. (When a character intones of Colombia that "life is cheap" here, it is immediately backed up with a man getting a bullet through the head in case anyone missed the point.) But the film does manage to convey fairly neatly the rationale behind George choosing the quick buck of pot-dealing over his dad's (Ray Liotta) slow fade to economic oblivion and the money-grubbing of his mother (Rachel Griffiths). Both Liotta (another of the film's Goodfellas references) and Griffiths are largely wasted in Blow's rash of superficial characters. Griffiths' role is an especially thankless one, a viciously one-note harridan who signals an actress on her way to career flame-out.

Larded with a mix of streetwise bad-boy behavior set to classic rock, Blow offers filmic hot-dogging with its freeze frames, whiplash pans and elliptical progressions, in which decades are collapsed into one tight little visual riff. Like a less manic Requiem for a Dream, Blow is so enthralled with frantic technique it allows effects to squash the human, expository elements in the drama. Director Ted Demme has not only seen Goodfellas, he's shot it up and puked it out verbatim. Blow has Scorsese's frantic momentum but the kind of cartoonish glorification of its scruffy hero and flat, cardboard view of good and evil, male and female, that more often resembles the grandiose, self-important storytelling of Oliver Stone.

Blow follows George as he hooks up with a hot-to-trot Colombian babe Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), sires a daughter, turns into a starry-eyed slave to the girl, stacks up drug money like bricks in his apartment and then begins the requisite, retributive fade-out to jailbird. In Blow life isn't cheap, but talk is and dialogue runs toward the trite, with Demme's clear preference being for visual exposition. Dialogue in Blow tends to sound canned and Cheez Whiz-authentic, like George's summation of Mirtha's qualifications as a soul mate: "She could party like a man and love like a woman." Duuuuuude.

Blow shows far more chutzpah and perversity on the part of costume designer Mark Bridges than on that of the screenwriters or director. With its Member's Only jackets paired with Hawaiian shirts, merlot bat-wing collared leather jackets, "Dynasty" helmet hair and white leisure suits with contrast stitching, half of the scenes in Blow look like a Radio Shack clerk out-on-the-town, circa 1981. Like its sampled visual style and flashy storytelling, Blow seems less concerned with capturing the nuances of George's experience than it is with wowing the audience with its magazine spread-recreation of the era.

Then there's Depp doing a costume-based impersonation of the span of George's experience, from his '60s pretty-boy in wide-wale cords transmogrifying into a coke hag with a prosthetic middle-age paunch and hair fried like a beach tramp's Sun-In locks. Part of Blow's annoyance factor is also part of the vacuous fun that comes from watching the absurdly transparent masquerade as Depp is transformed into a Bob Guiccione Jr. look-alike in this paper-thin portrait of one of the drug trade's more dubious "victims."