The White Stuff

Blow, starring Johnny Depp as the real-life cocaine-trafficker and junkie George Jung, has the trajectory of virtually every drug-themed movie ever made: down, down, and down. The early highs are a mere prelude to the inevitable FBI stings, ODs, mad rants, prison. Our hero’s sparkling eyes will inevitably glass over; his sneer will go slack. Drug movies are a subset of crime films, which long ago gave up the convention that crime does not pay. (The new convention is that, at least sometimes, it does indeed.) Drug movies, however, still operate in a puritanical universe where the druggies and the dealers must finally be brought low. Since drug usage, at least in its early stages, is often paired in the movies with oodles of cash and wanton sex, it is imperative to right the balance by the end. Brian De Palma’s Scarface, with Al Pacino dunking his thick noggin in high drifts of coke, remains the quintessential example of this genre; it has a revved-up, almost operatic moralism. The message of the movie seems to be: Crime does not pay and how.

The balancing act in druggie movies has always been delicate: How do you show the highs without appearing to endorse them? Traffic managed this act pretty well. The scenes of the high-school kids freebasing crack had a creepy, woozy euphoria; you could see what the attraction was even if you knew in your bones what was ahead. In its early sections, set in Manhattan Beach in the late sixties when George, still in his twenties, is becoming a pot-dealing entrepreneur, Blow has an ominous casualness that captures the self-styled counterculture spirit of gonzo capitalism. George has retreated from his Boston roots to the West Coast and become a beachfront tycoon in a tie-dyed universe of stewardesses and shag-haired dopers. His parents, played by Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths, are portrayed as lower-middle-class clock-punchers, and George makes it clear he doesn’t want to end up like them. (Liotta in real life is eight years older than Depp, and Griffiths is five years younger – so much for age-specific casting.)

George’s father delivers up homespun tidbits designed to bring the boy around. “Money isn’t real,” he says. “It doesn’t matter, it only seems like it does.” Sure enough, George becomes the main U.S. connection for the Colombian coke trade and makes so much moolah that he literally can’t find the room to store it all. And, yes, it doesn’t matter in the end. What matters for George is getting straight and gaining back the love of his father and the young daughter who believes he betrayed her.

Ted Demme, who directed from a script by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes from the book by Bruce Porter, invents or embellishes those aspects of George’s life that would make him more sympathetic, less cold-blooded. And so, early on, he is given a girlfriend (Franka Potente, of Run Lola Run) who dies tragically, and whose loss he never gets over. When George eventually marries, it is to a Colombian-drug-world moll (Penélope Cruz) with glitterati taste and brass lungs. The filmmakers want to portray George as a hurt puppy inside the dopester wheeler-dealer, and up to a point Johnny Depp obliges; if you eliminate his golden-boy tresses and wraparound shades, you see a stoner in pain. But Depp doesn’t overdo the agonies; he doesn’t overdo much of anything, actually. He offers up instead a beautiful, unreadable vacancy, and this doesn’t do much for the movie when George is reduced to wailing and mumbling. A cipher in misery is still a cipher. Depp’s hip hollowness doesn’t leave much for us to hang on to.

Blow feels like a fantasia on the theme of drug-dealing. Although George is a kingpin with the Feds on his tail and a million enemies, he seems to traipse about pretty much without bodyguards. The drug trade comes readily to him, as if by magic. The filmmakers are torn between presenting George’s life story as a cautionary tale, or as a blast. The cautionary material – the homilies and retributions and the unforgiving daughter – comes across as old-school stuff. Demme doesn’t appear to have his heart in all this; it’s in the movie to earn a mainstream seal of approval and absolve the filmmakers from the charge of glorifying drugs. Blow doesn’t glorify drug usage, exactly, but it does something vaguely similar: It downplays the effects of George’s drug trafficking, not so much on himself and his cronies as on the wrecked lives of the generation of customers we never get to see. George comes across as a bizarro version of the all-American boy who scores the American Dream. We are made to feel that if only he hadn’t gotten greedy, or snow-blind, he might have avoided the prison sentence that will keep him in stir until 2014. The people who made Blow are so much more attuned to George’s high-style successes than to his downfall that the film inadvertently seems to be saying: If you deal, keep your head on straight.

In Along Came a Spider, Morgan Freeman reprises his role from Kiss the Girls as criminal profiler Alex Cross. Aside from the fact that that 1997 film was a hit, it’s not clear why Freeman would want to once again indulge this character (the hero of the Alex Cross series of detective novels by James Patterson). There’s not much here for a great actor to sink his teeth into once, let alone twice, but, on the other hand, there aren’t many African-American sleuths in the movies, either. And who better than Freeman to bring Cross’s courtly ruminations to the screen? Even at half speed, Freeman excels: He knows how to whip out his badge at a crime scene and make it seem as if he had been doing it his whole life. In Along Came a Spider, Cross is tracking a crazily ambitious kidnapper (Michael Wincott) with the help of a flustered Secret Service agent (Monica Potter), and although Lee Tamahori’s direction is foot-draggy, there are enough twists in the plot to keep the audience happily bamboozled. But if Freeman reprises this role again, he’d be well advised to have the script spiffed up first. To hear him wrap his sonorous voice around a line like “I just get the feeling we’re missing something” is to be reminded once again why certain actors deserve their mega-salaries and then some.

Directed by Ted Demme; starring Johnny Depp.
Along Came a Spider
Starring Morgan Freeman.

The White Stuff