Junkie life is as chicly miserable as its most vapid chroniclers have always had us believe in “Asthma,” a feature directorial debut from actor Jake Hoffman that is sorely in need of its own inhaler. Taking a perversely slow approach to fast living, Hoffman’s film glumly examines the trail of all-purpose destruction left by New York heroin addict Gus (Benedict Samuel) on a weekend bender, but can’t resist having it both ways, as his scuzzily narcissistic lifestyle is also shown to have improbable sexual allure to at least one clear-headed woman (Krysten Ritter) with better options. Ritter’s performance is the liveliest thing in a callow, shallow cautionary tale, which wears its influences on its artfully frayed sleeve and no closer than that to its heart. A sprinkling of cameos from past-prime names is unlikely to make distributors breathe any easier around this dull-eyed downer.
Most recently seen on screen in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Hoffman is the son of actor Dustin, which adds a factor of curiosity to the production but doesn’t qualify as a selling point. It does, however, suggest why actors like Nick Nolte (who doesn’t even appear physically onscreen) and Rosanna Arquette might have been drawn to such negligible supporting roles. Hoffman at least has more natural directorial intuition than his dad, to go by the latter’s recent, inert “Quartet” — there are arresting flashes of compositional grace and sonic savvy here, even if they’re largely lifted from better films.
Even our protagonist’s Christian name recalls a filmmaker more confident in handling this kind of tonally tricky material: “Asthma” often shoots for the mordant slacker wit and dirty-nailed romanticism of Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough, “Drugstore Cowboy,” but manages little more than vague disaffection. Less vague is Gus’ litany of existential complaints and insecurities, given that Hoffman’s script frequently articulates them in the most literal fashion possible: “I was born too late,” he grumbles while pointedly painting over a poster of Jim Morrison in his apartment, immediately before a botched suicide attempt played half-heartedly for laughs.
Having reached rock-bottom, Gus takes the obvious self-healing measure of stealing a Rolls-Royce, restocking his drug cabinet and getting out of the Big Apple — his awkwardly prominent choice of getaway vehicle seemingly made solely to give his effete dealer (the late poet and artist Rene Ricard) the groanworthy punchline “More like a catcher in the Rolls.” If auds haven’t yet gotten the Holden Caulfield allusion, Hoffman offers them plenty more opportunities to do so, as Gus picks up knockout tattoo artist Ruby (Ritter) and heads for Connecticut.
There, Ruby’s older muso friend Logan (Dov Tiefenbach) is hosting a commune of hemp-wearing vegan types whom Caulfield would certainly have dismissed as “phony”; Gus looks on in contempt, oblivious to the irony that he’s as vacant a stereotype of misdirected middle-class privilege as they are. It’s unclear whether the film is in on the joke either, as Hoffman milks the neo-hippies for easy satire, while treating Gus and Ruby’s banal intellectual epiphanies (“Do you think we’re born a certain way, or does life shape us into who we are?”) in deadly earnest. Gus’ subsequent downward trajectory simply joins the dots from one celebrity cameo to the next: Nolte, sounding like he’s been gargling with methylated spirits, appears in werewolf form as Gus’ sub-“Donnie Darko” id; Iggy Pop gets to spout a random torrent of anti-Obamist invective as his cellmate for a night in the clink; and Arquette is his predictably wry, weary, bedridden mom.
The leads can’t be held accountable for their characters’ enervating behavior. Blessed with the androgynous, jolie-laide features of a young Mick Jagger — another comparison the script can’t resist underlining for our benefit — Australian thesp Samuel has a rangy, compelling physicality that should serve him better in more generous vehicles. Ritter, meanwhile, brings a salvaging blend of firecracker flirtatiousness and twice-burned melancholy to a character who doesn’t make much sense on paper, not least in the psychological and sexual leeway she keeps granting her deadbeat companion. Still, we’re grateful for her unlikely patience: “Asthma” would be even more airless without her.
Skilled tech credits all contribute to Hoffman’s cultivated atmosphere of dereliction, with David Myrick’s cinematography painting in washed-out denim hues. The clattery soundtrack, peppered with indie cuts from the likes of the Kills and Devendra Banhart, would have seemed cooler a few years ago than it does now, but that might be calculated — the same could be said of Gus, after all.