by Ed Symkus

Movie topic trends tend to come and go. One of the current hot ones is all about drugs -- how they're bought and sold, how they're used and abused, how they can wreak havoc on people's lives. Last year the top drug movies were Traffic, the real winner in the best picture category, and Requiem for a Dream, for which Ellen Burstyn should have grabbed acting honors. And now there's this terrific one, the title of which, for the uninitiated, is slang for cocaine.

It's the based-on-fact story of George Jung (played to the hilt by the amazing Johnny Depp), a young, rather innocent East Coast man who, in the late 1960s, headed for California, and soon discovered a whole other world, one filled with gorgeous women and plenty of money to be had by selling pot. Before long a small business is set up, thanks to supplier, and hairdresser, Derek Foreal (a performance by Paul Reubens that's going to get people saying, "Hey, this guy can act!") And business is good, so good that it's soon turned into an East Coast-West Coast connection. But as the stakes get bigger and trips to Mexico become more necessary, greed makes an unwanted entrance and immediately gets in the way of all the good times.

This is actually a deeply troubling movie that's cleverly disguised as something that's fun to watch. There's loud rock 'n' roll spinning on the soundtrack, there are beautiful people galore, and everyone has whatever anyone could possibly want. Unfortunately everything everyone is doing is totally against the law, and the law is never far behind any of them.

The deeply personal story of Jung's life is also being told at the same time. When first introduced to his family life at the beginning, it's clear to see that there are some mighty big problems, all of them revolving around his hapless father's (Ray Liotta) inability to in any way please his obviously troubled wife (Rachel Griffiths). It's interesting, by the way, that these two actors are playing so against type. Griffiths, harrowing here, has shown up in mostly light roles in films such as Muriel's Wedding and Me, Myself, I, while Liotta, with a couple of exceptions like Corinna, Corinna and Dominick and Eugene, has almost always played a vicious bad guy, but here is convincingly sensitive and sympathetic.

Yet it's Depp, in still another brave and fearless performance, bringing his character in and out of all kinds of emotional waters, that owns the film. Even wearing a series of bad wigs that's supposed to chronicle some of the changing times in the '70s and '80s, it's impossible not to take him and his part seriously. He remains one of the major actors of our times. (For those not convinced, rent a copy of Dead Man for proof.)

The film takes no prisoners in the way it presents its story of how cocaine eventually became the drug of choice on our shores. We are shown the actual business of the drug trade, and we're made to understand just how expendable life among those involved in it can be. Instant death is just a bullet to the head away in Mexico. And when greed becomes part of the mix between friends who are involved in drug trade dealings, back-stabbing is always just around the corner. Still, the enormous wealth and the attractive lifestyle make the greed and its likely outcome a risk worth taking for many of them.

While this looks like the story of a guy who was in the right place at the right time -- Jung was apparently the first American to introduce the cocaine market to the States, it can easily be read as exactly the opposite -- being in the absolute wrong place at the wrong time.

Director Ted Demme (Beautiful Girls, The Ref) keeps the film spinning through the years at a heady clip, with everything centered on Depp's character, but always checking out the people and events around him. The soundtrack, ranging from the Rolling Stones ("Can't You Hear Me Knocking" at the opening frame) to Link Wray, Cream, Bob Dylan, and Tito Puente, adds greatly to the spirited atmosphere.

There are minor flaws, most notably what the scripters thought was a good idea of having Jung eventually go through the same relationship hell that his father did. Maybe it happened to him in real life, but here, his wife (the overrated Penelope Cruz) seems to turn into a shrill creature overnight, with not enough explanation for her actions.

But this is otherwise a solid piece of filmmaking. The ending is one of absolutely heartbreaking, almost poetic beauty. For a story that's so gritty, there are going to be a surprising number of wet eyes in the house as the credits roll.

Get Lit! 2021

Through April 18
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