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Johnny Depp and Ted Demme craft a hedonistic look at sex and drugs before the fall. 

'Blow' Hard

Part of the new breed of drug movies, including the Oscar-nominated "Traffic" and "Requiem for a Dream," "Blow" tries to offer a more realistic look at how drugs cast an easy spell on Americans. The movie is based on the true experiences of George Jung (who's serving time until 2015), who claims credit — or shame — for introducing "coke" into the U.S. party vernacular. In fact, Jung takes responsibility for importing 85 percent of the cocaine that entered the United States during the late '70s.

But, thankfully, "Blow" isn't just another sinner's trek down destruction boulevard. Instead, Ted Demme and Johnny Depp tell the story of an average Joe who happens to be good at his chosen profession.

The movie begins with scenes from Jung's childhood in New England during the 1950s. His dad (played by Ray Liotta in heavy makeup) is a plumber whose belief in the founding fathers' work ethic becomes the model for his son's own success in the drug trade. George's mother (Rachel Griffiths) is a social-climbing shrew. Constantly harping on her husband's erratic abilities as a breadwinner, in materialistic fits, she frequently walks out on both husband and son.

Leaving home as soon as he's of age, George lands in Manhattan Beach, Calif., with best friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee). Taking instantly to the carefree lifestyle of sun, surf, sex and drugs, George backs into the drug business. George's stewardess girlfriend, Barbara ("Run Lola Run's" Franka Potente), hooks them up with Derek Foreal (Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens), a hairdresser-turned-businessman who fronts them a bag of weed to sell. Soon, they've got a lively export business in place, shipping marijuana to the college crowd in Boston via Barbara.

By 1970, George and Barbara are living large in Acapulco. But then things seem to take a terrible turn for the worse. First, he's busted carrying 660 pounds of pot. He's looking at time behind bars and his happy-go-lucky partnership with Tuna and Derek dissolves. Fate — or the devil — steps in though, and George's cellmate turns out to be Diego Delgado (Jordi Molla), a member of the Medellin cocaine cartel. When George's sentence is up, he decides to join Diego and work for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis).

Despite the heightened risk involved in international drug smuggling, George's no-nonsense Puritan work ethic soon has him back on top. Adding to his personal cachet, he marries highborn bombshell Mirtha (Penelope Cruz). But her behavior soon mirrors that of his mother's, as Mirtha wants more and more, resorting to using their daughter against him. Life turns even darker as his fortune is appropriated and the FBI draws ever closer to catching him.

As Jung, Depp gives another watchable performance, fleshing out borderline-cartoonish characters. What's there is fine, and he's often quite moving, especially in scenes with his daughter. But what's missing is also important. Where's the arrogance or sheer unbridled ambition that might help explain how this all-American boy wandered into such deep trouble?

Despite the meticulous aging makeup and the progressively longer blonde fright wigs, Depp always looks like Depp. Nor can we truly suspend disbelief in scenes with his parents. As Dad, Liotta is just eight years older than Depp; Mom Griffiths is five years Depp's junior. Even so, Liotta comes closest to giving the movie its much-needed emotional center of gravity. And Griffiths pulls as much as she can from her narrowly written and shallow character. Fans of Cruz will find much to cheer here, while others, not yet sold on her screen presence, will find her only marginally involving. Not on-screen until well into the second hour of the movie, Cruz seems hamstrung by her role's seductress-to-shrew emotional arc.

True to the time period, Demme gets to show off his knowledge of contemporary cinema techniques by reviving such groovy gimmicks as multiple split-screen images. He also gives a passing nod to such other great drug-trafficking flicks as "Goodfellas" and "Scarface." But despite the terrific performances and Demme's muscular direction, the story of Jung's descent isn't nearly as riveting as his ascent. And that's a problem. Perhaps this is a byproduct of straight biographical facts getting in the way of the storytelling, but as more sentimental touches are tossed in near the movie's end, "Blow" loses some of its visceral punch.

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