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'Asthma': Karlovy Vary Review

Asthma Car Still - H 2014
Thank You, Brain! Productions

The Bottom Line

Hey hey, we're the junkies.

Venue

Karlovy Vary Film Festival

Starring

Benedict Samuel, Krysten Ritter, Dov Tiefenbach, Goran Visnjic, Rosanna Arquette, Iggy Pop, Nick Nolte

Director

Jake Hoffman

Set on the fringes of New York City's druggy downtown demimonde, this dated and derivative indie drama marks the feature debut of writer-director Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin.

KARLOVY VARY — The only thing worse than a hipster junkie movie, Oscar Wilde once famously observed, is a wannabe hipster junkie movie. Asthma is the first feature by Jake Hoffman, a young actor who recently had a small role in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and who also happens to be the son of screen legend Dustin Hoffman. But spending half his childhood on film sets was clearly not enough of an education for Junior, who falls into some classic debutante traps here. Not even quirky cameos by the likes of Iggy Pop, Rosanna Arquette and Nick Nolte, who appears in voice only, can elevate this ill-judged indie road movie above clumsy cult curio status.

Lack of originality and self-awareness prove to be a fatal combination. There is something way too familiar about Hoffman's rites-of-passage portrait of wasted youth, with its inevitable soundtrack of fashionable angst-rock and predictably retro-cool cult-movie influences. Asthma aspires to be Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy with a light sprinkling of Donnie Darko, early Richard Linklater and vintage Jim Jarmusch — all valid reference points. But third-hand copies of yesterday's hip, young gunslingers are no substitute for an original voice. Following its world premiere in Karlovy Vary this week, this derivative drama will struggle to find an audience, except possibly among the kind of shallow scene-makers it depicts with mostly uncritical empathy.

The coltish Australian leading man Benedict Samuel, younger brother of Twilight hunk Xavier Samuel, has Jagger-esque good looks and a convincing American accent in his favor. But he is saddled with one of the least sympathetic antiheroes in modern movie history. Gus is an aspiring artist and heroin addict who fills his empty days stealing expensive cars and whining about how New York has lost its sleazy, bohemian edge. Hoffman is clearly aiming for echoes of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, a parallel he clumsily underscores several times in his script. But Vincent Gallo's charmless autobiographical star turn in Buffalo 66 is a closer match.

When not getting wasted and staging half-baked suicide attempts, Gus likes hitting on hot girls at downtown rock shows. His latest target is Ruby, played by Gossip Girl and Breaking Bad veteran Krysten Ritter, a prickly beauty with a musician boyfriend and little time for losers like Gus. But what are the chances his inner childlike vulnerability and Kierkegaard-quoting intellectual depths will break down her defenses by the end of the film? Go on, take a guess.

After a visit to his drug dealer, a colorful cameo by the late New York artist Rene Ricard, Gus makes a flamboyant second attempt at winning over Ruby by driving her out of the city in a stolen Rolls-Royce. Their eventful journey brings them to a ramshackle Connecticut house full of bearded Brooklyn hipster types who seem to have beamed in from the first Woodstock festival, especially the dreadlock-haired spiritual guru played by an unrecognizable Goran Visnjic. Cue much witless hippie psychobabble and low-level sexual tension as Gus struggles to manage his heroin cravings and his romantic feelings for Ruby, which have sprung from nowhere to become all-consuming.

In fairness, Asthma does not miss the target every time. Ritter makes the thinly written Ruby plausible and sympathetic, while cinematographer David Myrick finds handsome pop art vistas all over small-town Connecticut. Hoffman's name-dropping of cult cinema and music legends does him no favors, but at least it shows commendable ambition should he ever get to make another movie. Try again, fail again, fail better.

But for every well-judged emotional nuance and cool cultural signifier, Hoffman throws in goofy stunts like Pop's pointless one-scene cameo as a babbling conspiracy theorist, or Arquette's thankless final-act appearance as Gus' seriously ill mother, looking way too young and healthy for the role. It is certainly possible to make a sympathetic movie about privileged young slackers and their First World problems — Hoffman Senior in The Graduate springs to mind — but Asthma is just too in love with its vacuous protagonists to deserve our emotional investment.

Production companies: Thank You, Brain! Productions, Papageorge Pictures, Out of the Woods Productions

Starring: Benedict Samuel, Krysten Ritter, Dov Tiefenbach, Goran Visnjic, Rosanna Arquette, Iggy Pop, Nick Nolte

Director: Jake Hoffman

Writer: Jake Hoffman

Producers: Tracey Baird, Missy Papageorge, Jake Hoffman

Cinematographer: David J. Myrick

Editor: Barney Pilling

Music: Mark Noseworthy

Sales company: William Morris Endeavor Entertainment

No rating, 90 minutes