As the most adroitly entertaining public service announcement Hollywood could possibly wish for, Traffic should have been the big Oscar winner. Was it derailed by the perceived threat to the nation’s f/x action hegemony posed by the alien antics of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Thanks perhaps to movie industry jingoism, Gladiator rules. Still, team Traffic can take some small solace in the appearance of Ted Demme’s deeply mediocre dope opera, Blow.
Hopefully ambitious yet hopelessly lightweight, Blow tells the cautionary tale of the real-life master coke smuggler George Jung (Johnny Depp), profiled in Rolling Stone eight years ago as the U.S. embodiment of the Medellín drug cartel. The movie opens with an entire village of Colombian peons picking coca and processing the powder; like Traffic, Blow is looking for the big picture. Unfortunately in this case, the panorama is funneled through the experience of an increasingly dull character.
A voice-over narrative guides us through George’s ultra-’50s boyhood, raised in blue-collar suburban Massachusetts by a fond dad (Ray Liotta) and a wayward yet materialistic mom (Rachel Griffiths), then cuts to his awakening on the Santa Monica beach circa 1968 as Johnny Depp with long, dirty-blond locks. (This is but the first of the star’s many strange hairpieces, perhaps left over from Ed Wood.) George shacks up with a lovable stewie, Barbara (Franka Potente, star of Run Lola Run), whose costumes keep the Wigstock theme going, and starts pushing pot for the flaming hairdresser Derek (Paul Reubens, playing as close to Pee-wee as he dares), whose presence confirms the tonsorial madness.
Expanding their business back east while pioneering the use of private airplanes to fly the stuff in from the mota farms of deepest Mexico, George and his friends are soon hippie drug lords. It’s everyone into the pool until 1972, when George is busted with 660 pounds in Chicago. (This very heavy weight is complemented by a hilariously unlikely bit of business, in which he concludes his trial by treating the judge to a rambling lecture that incorporates long, uncredited passages from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.) A sudden shift into Love Story bathos has Barbara develop cancer and fugitive George arrested at his parents’ house, because his grotesquely disapproving mom dropped a dime.
Mildly rollicking so long as it avoids emotional ballast, Blow is better played than it is directed, and better shot (by Ellen Kuras) than it is scripted (by Nick Cassavetes and David McKenna). George does his jail time, finds the right cellmate, the Colombian car thief Diego (Jordi Mello), and, despite parole back to the old homestead, manages to get himself down to Medellín in 1976, where he finds a gaggle of volatile locals auditioning for the Al Pacino part in Scarface. Reconnecting with Derek, his old L.A. distributor, George unloads 50 kilos of coke in three days—thus becoming Pablo Escobar’s fair-haired boy.
Establishing himself as something of a world-historic individual, George takes the credit, along with his partners, for turning Hollywood on to cocaine: “We invented the marketplace.” (Never mind that Easy Rider was trafficking in coke back in 1969.) At the height of the disco decade, this titan of free enterprise has an estate the size of an all-inclusive beach resort, as well as half a dozen automobiles and an aristocratic Colombian wife, Mirtha (Penélope Cruz), who can be as classy or kinky as the situation requires. George is an all-American striver, but for all his bragging, he seems more lucky than anything else. (The key to his success is actually Derek, who might reasonably be the subject of the movie.)
“I’m great at what I do, Dad—I mean, I’m really great at it,” George tells his father in their ongoing discussion of his successful import-export business. (Heartfelt but ineffectual parenting is a theme throughout.) Liotta’s presence also provides a continuing echo of Goodfellas, the movie to which Blow most obviously aspires, albeit through the filter of Paul Thomas Anderson. To add to the third-generation Scorsese flavor, the action is punctuated with cute freeze-frames, staccato montage sequences, and slo-mo interludes that are usually employed to heighten the pathos whenever George is busted.
Because Blow is a morality tale, George decides to quit the business; moved by the birth of a daughter, he attempts to go clean. But the blow isn’t finished with him: Mirtha is still snorting coke from the same bowl her husband uses to shape his coiffure. In the inevitable, not to mention overly extended and thoroughly familiar, retribution reel, Mirtha turns from spitfire to shrew—a psychological deterioration signaled by Cruz’s appearance in a streaky, disheveled mop. In a heavy-handed variation on George’s own childhood, she deprives the doting dad of his beloved daughter.
Depp’s late scenes as a gray-faced cokie notwithstanding, George Jung has been improved in numerous ways. In the movie, he is something of a naïf who is betrayed or set up by virtually all his friends; in life, Jung was pleased to testify against his partners to cut his own deal with the feds. Freed for coke smuggling, he was finally sent away for a series of tawdry pot busts. Here, the whole long bad hair day climaxes with a sentimental comeuppance that might be subtitled “when bad things happen to nice fathers.”
Fearlessly simplistic, if less politically daring than it might initially seem, The Day I Became a Woman is the latest feminist tract to emerge from the curiously family-centered film atelier of Iranian auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf—written by Makhmalbaf and directed by his 31-year-old wife, Marziyeh Meshkini.
Where The Apple, which was written by Makhmalbaf and directed by his then 18-year-old daughter, Samira, found a suggestive metaphor in the real-life situation of twin girls imprisoned at home by their fundamentalist father and blind mother, The Day I Became a Woman is somewhat more schematic in imposing metaphor on life. A highly economical allegory on three stages of Iranian female existence (childhood, married life, old age), the movie opens cute and poignant, turns wildly visceral, and ends in a burst of magical realism. The elemental landscape in which the action unfolds is rendered additionally exotic for being set on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.
In the initial episode, a nine-year-old girl who is due to be fitted for her first chador bargains for an hour more of childhood—playing, for the last time, on an equal basis with a little neighbor boy. Next, marriage is shown as a condition of existential harassment. Her chador flowing in the wind, a young wife participates in an all-female bicycle race through a scrubby seaside desert. (“Cycling” was one of the non-cinematic courses given at the Makhmalbaf Film School.) As she pedals, she’s pursued by horsemen. These include her husband—who threatens her with divorce—as well as her “disgraced” kinsmen.
The third and most mysterious episode concerns an elderly woman, perhaps newly widowed, who arrives at Kish International Airport and goes on to shop for everything denied to her in life. The caravan of her purchases is wheeled out on the empty beach and packed up, along with the old lady, on a raft. This cheerful ritual, suggestive of a journey into the afterlife, is observed by two women from the cycling race as well as the young girl, knitting together the three stories to establish the sense of cosmic simultaneity that is the most effective aspect of the film.
With several current retros and The Circle (another No Exit metaphor for female cultural imprisonment under the regime of Islamic fundamentalism) opening next week, this is indeed the season for Iranian films. Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, the first movie in 20 years by the long-banned Bahman Farmanara, a onetime distributor of foreign films in North America, is a humorously death-haunted psychodrama in which the filmmaker—playing a movie director called Bahman Farjami—undertakes an absurd quest to document his own funeral.
A cozier, more generic-looking Taste of Cherry, Smell of Camphor—which had its local premiere at the last New York Film Festival—is more or less bracketed by the protagonist’s discovery that someone else has been buried in his plot and his experience of watching himself, Tom Sawyer style, as he is laid to rest. Farmanara, playing a kind and portly family man, is an intensely sympathetic figure (at least in his on-screen persona), but he would have needed the chops of Andrei Tarkovsky—or else the innocence of Samira Makhmalbaf—to successfully bring off this fusion of memory, fantasy, and social satire.