Blow follows the rise and inevitable fall of real-life drug dealer George Jung (Johnny Depp), an easy-going schmo with varying luck who started with a small marijuana-selling operation in late-'60s Los Angeles and became one of the key players in the popularization of cocaine in the decades following.

Stylistically and thematically, this film falls somewhere between Goodfellas and Boogie Nights as another document of a sleazy industry's glory days and its downfall. Yet Blow succeeds on its own terms, as it eschews most of the wanton violence in Goodfellas and doesn't wear out its welcome like the bloated, overrated Boogie Nights. All the same, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson are thanked in the end credits, so Ted Demme at least acknowledges who he's borrowing from.

Nevertheless, the film's insider's view of the evolution of cocaine in the United States is fascinating, and shines light in corners of the drug trade that the film Traffic, I now realize, failed to do. Blow plays like a history lesson, but in the best sense: One quick montage of hundreds of still photos tells the whole story of how big cocaine became in this country, how quickly it happened, and how few people were actually involved.

Ultra-stylish and fast-paced, the film only loses its footing in the third act, as George struggles to maintain his tenuous ties with his father (Ray Liotta) and his young daughter. It's too sentimental; I didn't quite buy it. There is also a lingering sense of misogyny in George's tale, as his cold-hearted mother (Rachel Griffiths) and harpy wife (Penélope Cruz) can attest. But the cast is excellent (Paul Reubens's scene-stealing performance as a drug-dealing hairdresser is worth the price of admission), the feel for the period is spot-on, and Depp comes through with yet another decent performance as a man who, by his own admission, had a lot of ambition but none of the talent to back it up.