A smug, supercilious movie that seeks to skewer the lives of smug, supercilious people, writer-director Josh Evans' third feature, "The Price of Air," wallows in the deviant proclivities of the rich, wearing its rancor like a merit badge. From the caricatured depiction of soulless Los Angeles power players to the sudden bursts of graphic violence, it's obvious that Evans is out to jostle viewers from a perceived societal complacency. But nothing about "The Price of Air" is as shocking as the superficiality of its polemics, the self-consciousness of its performances or the odd note of vanity struck by Evans' casting of himself in the lead role.

A smug, supercilious movie that seeks to skewer the lives of smug, supercilious people, writer-director Josh Evans’ third feature, “The Price of Air,” wallows in the deviant proclivities of the rich, wearing its rancor like a merit badge. From the caricatured depiction of soulless Los Angeles power players to the sudden bursts of graphic violence, it’s obvious that Evans is out to jostle viewers from a perceived societal complacency. But nothing about “The Price of Air” is as shocking as the superficiality of its polemics, the self-consciousness of its performances or the odd note of vanity struck by Evans’ casting of himself in the lead role. Shot in and around L.A. on digital video, and with a largely improvised feel, pic obviously aspires to the gutter lyricism of “Leaving Las Vegas” or the best films of Abel Ferrara but doesn’t come close, which auds will likely figure out fast during pic’s limited theatrical run. Presence of name talent on the screen and on the soundtrack will potentially add to ancillary appeal.

Pic focuses on Paul (Evans), an evident knockabout who agrees to courier a package of illicit drugs for Mr. Ball (Michael Madsen), an associate of Paul’s father-in-law to be (Dick Van Patten). Paul sets off on the errand with his best friend D (Sticky Fingaz), but predictably, all goes awry, D is shot and killed, and Paul goes on the lam, drugs in tow.

The powder looks like cocaine but is actually (we are told) a new substance called blue, that is “more addictive than air.” Hence pic’s title, which also refers to an early conversation between Paul and D about increasing commercialization and the notion that air itself might someday become a salable commodity. That current of dissatisfaction runs throughout “The Price of Air,” and the characters frequently pause to reflect on the complex, congested nature of the world.

Conceptually, it’s an intriguing notion for a movie, a bit indebted to the films of Jon Jost, with its own Gen-X weariness and SoCal malaise. But Evans confuses pungent criticism with mindless agitprop and so, rather than a compelling study of disillusionment in America, we are treated to a hyper-real, exceedingly one-note invocation of a world in which wealth is equivalent to moral bankruptcy and the only way to escape is to get high.

Evans’ approach is defined by simple-minded exaggerations. To wit, it’s not enough that Madsen and Van Patten traffic in illegal drugs — they also have to be Scientologists who are into sadomasochism and who make disparaging racist jokes. Better yet, Van Patten’s wife (Michelle Phillips) is a lusty dominatrix in her own right, itching to bed her own daughter’s fiance. Evans demonizes the wealthy so much, while simultaneously glorifying the dropout lifestyle of his young protags, that he effectively removes any semblance of actuality or truthfulness.

On the run, Paul meets Anne (Charis Michelsen), a porn actress who shares Paul’s disenchantment with the aftereffects of the Industrial Revolution. Shored up in a Vegas hotel room, they have torrid, meaningless sex, blow all the “blue,” and bond together after Anne saves Paul from the henchman (British techno-music star Goldie, who also composed the film’s electronic score) sent by Mr. Ball to remove his kidney.

Increasingly ridiculous scenario is done in by a thorough lack of humor, the absence of chemistry between Evans and Michelsen and Evans’ failure to reconcile his film’s romantic impulses with its woefully formulaic drug-running subplot. The dialogue registers as though it were constructed while the camera was rolling, with Evans himself a blank slate through most of the film and Michelsen seeming the most in-the-moment of all the actors.

Pic’s digital video images are sharp and colorful, though experiments with subjective p.o.v. are inconsistent and mostly ineffectual. In addition to Goldie, soundtrack features original song contributions by Seal and, notably, ex-Onyx member Fingaz.

The Price of Air

Production

An Artistic License release of an M&JK presentation. Produced by Zachary Matzo, Thomas Graven, Michael Madison. Executive producers, Lauren Wild, Lisa Larrivee. Directed, written by Josh Evans.

Crew

Camera (Color, digital video-to-35mm), Rufus Standefer; editors, Sabine El Chamaa, Fritz Feick; music, Goldie; production designer, Karen Haase; costume designer, Jacqueline Aronson; casting, Cathy Henderson, Dori Zuckerman. Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, L. A., Sept. 28, 2000. (In Vancouver Film Festival.) Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Paul - Josh Evans Anne - Charis Michelsen Mr. Ball - Michael Madsen Mr. Rye - Dick Van Patten Mrs. Rye - Michelle Phillips D - Sticky Fingaz Greaser - Goldie Amy Rye - Allison Lange Willy - Alexis Arquette Thumpy - Jenna Hoffman Sugar - Badja Djola

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