Tomcats is Classically Crass: Johnny Depp in the Drug Epic Blow

Make text smaller Make text larger

Not since Van Halen's Hot for Teacher music video has a single film been so classically crass as Tomcats. Take that as an endorsement. This latest variation on the teen sex comedy has its notable gross-outs, but its best moments are memorably funny. Writer-director Gregory Poirier finds screwball comedy's vulgar roots?a considerable achievement, distinct from the Farrelly brothers' social absurdity. The plot's about breaking up that old gang of bachelors. The last one to get hitched collects a communal pot of cash, and Michael (Jerry O'Connell), with mobsters on his tail, determines to win by arranging for Kyle (Jake Busey) to marry Natalie (Shannon Elizabeth), an old conquest who's now a crafty vice cop.

Poirier's self-policing crude jokes don't lessen his uncanny display (especially in the Chinese restaurant scene) of how immaturity underpins genuine male squeamishness. (As when a gay Tomcat retorts, "Hey, blow me," and the boys all pause.) Screwball's romantic essence?once the expression of adult sophistication?is not impossible when seen through frightened males' tactless bravado. And because Tomcats really is funny, it's beyond sexist. It disarms sexism?and thus is better than The Wedding Planner. Some jokes veer into genre satire, others kid Tomcats' own pretenses (my favorite: Natalie telling Kyle, "I'm saving up to buy a one-story house").

O'Connell's not a comic, but his bright-eyed pep distills Michael's humor and ardor. (Michael's cartoonist profession introduces some fanciful effects in homage to MIA 80s auteur Savage Steve Holland.) When Michael eventually?quickly?falls for Natalie (who flashes a Shelley Duvall smile), Tomcats becomes as irresistible as an age-old limerick.

Directed by Ted Demme

"Money isn't real. It doesn't matter." This gnomic advice, spoken by a father to his son, could have launched Blow with the riskiest piece of moral suasion in any contemporary movie. Audiences will either be intrigued or out the door. Yet before long, director Ted Demme loses sight of that extraordinary philosophy and attempts a contact high from the excitement of money?plus drugs and sex and rock 'n' roll.

As for the actual George Jung, a 70s Massachusetts youth (played by Johnny Depp) who witnessed his working-class parents' money troubles, Blow shows him growing up in singleminded pursuit of success and riches. Jung begins by selling marijuana; he meets a Latin American connection in jail, calling Danbury prison "a crime school," where he graduates to the big time. "After my bachelor of marijuana, I got a doctorate of cocaine," he narrates. Misguidedly adopting Jung's street-smart sarcasm, Demme attempts turning his life into a fly epic about the advent of the cocaine trade in 1970s America?the coming together of the counterculture and outlawry. Those concepts could be confused in the 70s (because they sometimes blurred), but today the distinctions are no more meaningful than a campy Old Navy commercial. Demme's strategy gives the MTV audience a distorted view of its moral inheritance. As told, Jung's story refutes fatherly counsel and connects marketing-hedonism-consumerism as if they were birthrights.

To further complicate things, Demme casts Ray Liotta (the Henry Hill of Goodfellas) as Jung's father and Max Perlich (the petty doper of Drugstore Cowboy) as a homeboy connection. Both actors represent Jung's moral poles while pointing out Demme's pop sense of history?his artistic cred. But this view of drug culture and pop culture only makes Blow a facile epic, a not-wise cautionary tale. Blow's mixed-up moral stance can be traced to the cultural confusion that first became apparent in Martin Scorsese's 1990 Goodfellas with its wobbly sense of comic and horrific social history. The morally unstable Goodfellas (a huge influence on the worst, most superficial music videos and action films of the past decade) was a near-disaster of moral ambiguity paralleling Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, a more adroit disaster of amorality.

Wanna know why? Those films overwhelmed the long-accepted point of Robert Warshow's 1948 essay, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," which said that we sympathize with gangsters because their social opposition expresses our own rebellious impulses. Warshow intellectualized how the middle class leisurely romanticizes the dangerous criminal class it pretends to disdain. That view has been supplanted by simple, hip self-justification. Now Blow (through Scorsese, Van Sant and some other pop referents) refashions Warshow's theory for a new generation's thrill-seeking class. "Cocaine exploded in the American culture like an atomic bomb. It started in California and moved east," Jung exclaims (a fact better portrayed in Annie Hall?or have Demme and his audience forgotten?). Pledged to the hiphop era since his feature debut Who's the Man?, Demme (who's not even 40) romanticizes coke's rise not to justify the rebellious aspect of crime, or explore the national quest for placebo, but to simply, naively glamorize it?much as Hype Williams did in Belly.

In last year's light satire Saving Grace, human and social values were maintained while telling of a dowdy widow's success in the marijuana trade. As Grace (Brenda Blethyn) ventured into London's underworld the film betrayed a global, underground awareness of weed and crack that is never officially acknowledged. Blow is lots hipper than Saving Grace but not nearly as good. (Critics who overpraise Blow kowtow to the youth market.) Like Traffic, Blow is a sanctimonious drug fantasy, an all-American Horatio Alger story based on entrepreneurial neo-moralism, like Saving Grace but essentially narcissistic. Viewers are encouraged to sympathize with Jung despite his wayward, irresponsible acts. (Strange how recent claims that Traffic initiates dialogue on drugs completely ignore the many hiphop films on the subject. Apparently no one takes ghetto movies seriously, not even the filmmakers themselves.) Blow subscribes to the particular self-aggrandizing style of white hiphop heads and that forms the basis of Demme's spurious conclusion that dealers like Jung are the new tragicomic heroes.

Demme and screenwriters David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes gloss the facts of the drug revolution so that Jung's naivete passes for complicated innocence. In the mawkish climax, Jung only realizes that he mismanaged his drug trade and personal life when it costs him his relationship with his daughter. And here's the giveaway: it's the bereft, confused, hurting child, trying to make sense of the previous generation's follies, who fuels this misconceived film. Strictly self-absorbed, the filmmakers don't achieve a validly epic sense of the drug culture (or that American family cycle of deprivation and ruthlessness). Their trivial, pop approach to characterization starts with family background, George's hard-working dad and coarse, moneygrubbing mother (Rachel Griffiths). But by the time George's life comes full circle and he repeats his parents' squabbles with his own wife, a Colombian junkie named Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), the drama winds up seeming misogynist rather than insightful. The bad, greedy mother, a facile, repeated irony, sentimentalizes childhood grief without explaining either woman's social influences. (Griffiths is shrill and Cruz suggests a vapid teenage version of Michelle Pfeiffer's Elvira in Scarface. When she and Depp meet, both have dark, falling locks; when divorced they sport matching bad blonde wigs.)

These shallow performances are as damaging as Demme's infatuation with sensationalized crime movie tropes. A pan from Jung in the toilet to his betrayers huddled together has zip, but no moral weight; it's an empty Scorsese mannerism, with no dramatic momentum. That's because Depp (whose Viper Room nightclub gets a credit?but no mention of River Phoenix's drug death there) doesn't bring Jung the necessary gravity with which Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence transformed Demme's prison comedy Life. Blow has only a vague relationship to social, political history; Depp seems trapped impersonating an implausible character. His Jung lacks gangsterish fascination and drive. He's passive-naive, which flatters the audience's disinclination to understand any morality whatsoever.

Finally, not even that fatherly moral "Money isn't real" is exactly realistic. It's a fanciful moral hypothesis as foolish by itself as the drug excess and greed Jung has no qualms enjoying. Money symbolizes an exchange of shared values, a vital, global ideology as Jung discovers when he meets Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel. (That scene's another "explosive" pop cliche.) But Demme and his collaborators can't figure out how to apply the father's advice to George's life story, or to the excitement of dealing and its illusory social rebellion. It's easier to pump the high life?a terrible basis for the kind of splashy filmmaking that a major music magazine has praised as "touched by greatness." Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone's 1983 Scarface, which really was touched with greatness, clarified the ethnic basis of drug business, its dangerous, insane flow of money and still, remarkably, gauged Tony Montana's mad egotism. Even De Palma's less amazing Carlito's Way beat Blow's elaborate yet uninformed cultural evocation. Demme's choice of songs like the Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" ("Ya'll got cocaine eyes") predates the authentic disco hits of Carlito's Way, but instead of bringing Blow back to the beginning of coke-counterculture, it remystifies drug hedonism, detracting from its most alarming social effects. Based on fantasy as much as fact, Blow's pop myth isn't real and it doesn't matter.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters