It's really a win/win situation. If the logline “examines the consequences of the ‘live fast, die young’ mentality in New York’s indie rock scene” doesn’t chill you to your core, perhaps you might actually get something out of “Asthma,” the directorial debut from Jake (son of Dustin) Hoffman, which premiered last night at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. And if it fills you with trepidation, you’ll be gratified by having most of your fears borne out, especially seeing as it actually takes place largely in Connecticut and it's not even remotely about music.
Suffering from the start from a terminal lack of urgency, similar to that which dogs the tortured, complex (read vapid, self-absorbed) protagonist, “Asthma” is not without some transitory pleasures and doesn’t suggest that Hoffman is entirely without filmmaking talent: the shooting style is pretty, especially when centered on the film’s photogenic leads, and it’s put together with a competence and confidence unusual for a first-timer. But the problems run far deeper than craft — it is simply a film that has no reason to be made, a story without point or insight or drive. In fact, the whole yarn, about attractive but not terribly bright people working through Privileged Young Person Angst 101, and coming to groaningly obvious conclusions that are put forth as revelatory, feels reverse-engineered, like NYU grad Hoffman wants more to be a filmmaker than he does to make this film.
The feeling of the cart being set before the horse extends to the casting too, ostensibly the most impressive aspect of this almost-too-indie-to-function indie. It’s a ramshackle collection of people occupying roles that seem written into the story because these actors are available for it, and not because they serve any narrative purpose. At best it results in “Oh, hey, his bedridden Mom is played by Rosanna Arquette” and “Holy shit is that Goran Visnjic under that terrible dreads-and-beard combo as the spiritual Guru?” moments; at worst, it feels just wasteful. Nick Nolte does have a voice that could gravel the driveway to a stately home, but hearing him reduced to a voice-only role, as a heavily “Donnie Darko”-inflected imaginary werewolf companion, it just made us wish we were watching a Nick Nolte movie. Any Nick Nolte movie (ok fine, not “I Love Trouble”). And as for Iggy Pop’s bizarre cameo, in which he spouts an anti-Obama tirade in a single scene in a police holding cell, we spent most of that marveling at the weirdly wrinkled orange skin of his torso. Given all these interesting, if eclectic names, Hoffman however chooses to focus on Gus, played by Benedict Samuel, who kind of looks a tiny bit like Mick Jagger which in case we hadn’t noticed is subtly, obliquely alluded to by one character who says “Hey, you look like Mick Jagger.”
Gus is just super, super disaffected. Vandalizing his own apartment in a fit of depressive existential ennui, as he slaps white paint carelessly over his poster of Jim Morrison, he intones “All my heroes are dead. I was born too late” out loud to himself, before attempting to hang himself from a light fitting. The noose gives way and Gus clatters to the paint-splattered floor, coughing and clutching at his throat and apparently suddenly afflicted with the titular ailment, though he’s able to cough through his subsequent attacks needing nothing so uncool as a Ventolin inhaler. Chainsmoking, lank haired and prowling New York in ripped clothing (having earlier thrown his iPhone into the sea because fuck iPhones and the Dads who call on them, amiright?), Gus impulsively steals a flash vintage Rolls Royce, which turns out to have bunch of cash in the glove compartment, so he goes to score — he is also a heroin addict. His extravagantly camp dealer twice compares him to Holden Caulfield, the second time as he's driving away, with the tortured pun “More like ‘Catcher in the Rolls’” but duly stocked up, Gus heads over to find his crush Ruby (Krysten Ritter) a tattooist with a penchant for rock stars who is on her way to Connecticut. Gus offers to drive her.
The rest of the film is concerned primarily with his rather half-assed attempts to woo the lovely Ruby who is half the time his unattainable, mercurial muse and half the time an irritating nag, but Ritter is such an appealing presence, and is shot with such an eye for her gorgeousness, that the film does perk up a bit when she’s around. And Dov Tiefenbach as Logan, the indie rock band frontman with whom Gus and Ruby end up staying, also acquits himself well, bringing some welcome normality and sanity to the increasingly solipsistic endeavor. But Hoffman will try to insist that Gus is his most interesting character when in fact he’s merely the most self-absorbed (though his suicidal tendencies seem to have abated without mention) and so we wander away from potentially more interesting avenues to follow his trite, well-worn path to some sort of new understanding. Along the way, Hoffman, also the screenwriter, namechecks Kierkegaard (with the line "Leave Kierkegaard out of this" which he then largely does), has Ruby stare at a baby and ponder the nature vs nurture debate, gets side characters look at Gus and declare “What a lost soul!” and more or less directly rips off Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” by having Gus paint stripes on his cheekbones in the blood of a dead deer, just one of a few instances where Ruby gets to exclaim/remind us “Gus, you’re crazy!”
And of course there’s the soundtrack, which is peppered with big names in the indie scene, or rather bands that were riding high a few years ago: The Strokes (there were reports that Albert Hammond Jr was going to show up in this film but if he did, we missed it), Tame Impala, Devendra Banhart, The Kills etc. But the b-side selection is done no favors by Hoffman’s preference for cutting into the music abruptly against the grain of phrasing or rhythm, a self-consciously inelegant tic which is a flourish that has worked well for others (like Jean-Luc Godard, thanked in the credits), but here serves no wider purpose beyond a sort of studenty "hey, wouldn't it be cool if..." impulse.
A film about ennui-filled photogenic folk who can scarcely muster enough curiosity or imagination to be interested in each other, let alone the wider world is always going to struggle to win the interest of any viewer who is not of the very precise tiny milieu depicted, or who does not find that louche, vacuous existence aspirational. Not belonging to either category, the only note that really resonated with us was when characters worked out they’d be best off on their own, distancing themselves from the people they’d sought connection with before. Now that we can understand: five minutes in their company and we wanted rid of the whole tiresome lot of them too. [C-]