Director: Jake Hoffman
Cast: Benedict Samuel, Krysten Ritter, Nick Nolte, Rosanna Arquette
Watch Asthma online in the UK: Netflix UK
It’s easy to see why Netflix acquired this indie druggie drama – co-star Krysten Ritter’s profile has risen considerably since 2014 (largely thanks to the success of the platform’s own Jessica Jones) – and this 90 minute curio is sure to pick up a few curious clicks as a result. Indeed, Ritter’s characteristically edgy performance is the undisputed highlight of the film, which has a smattering of style but is ultimately left adrift in increasingly pretentious meanderings.
Written and directed by Jake (son of Dustin) Hoffman, Asthma stars Benedict (brother of Xavier) Samuel as Gus, a would-be artist and heroin addict whose constant lament is that he missed the glory days of New York, artistically speaking. After a botched suicide attempt, Gus heads to a grungy rock gig, where he attempts to pick up sardonic tattooist Ruby (Ritter).
Undeterred by Ruby’s initial knock-back, Gus steals a Rolls-Royce and offers to drive her to Connecticut, where she’s agreed to tattoo her rock star buddy Logan (Dov Tiefenbach). The pair grow closer during their impromptu road trip, but once they arrive at their destination – a commune of irritating artistic types – Gus finds himself at the mercy of both his heroin cravings and his jealousy issues.
Hoffman’s script practically falls over itself in an attempt to demonstrate its literary credentials, making repeated reference to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and name-dropping the likes of Kierkegaard in the clumsiest fashion imaginable (“Leave Kierkegaard out of this!”). Unfortunately, the film has no real ideas of its own and the best it can muster in that department is to have Ruby look at a baby and muse: “Do you think we’re born a certain way, or does life shape us into who we are?”
That frustrating lack of imagination crops up repeatedly, with Hoffman constantly lifting ideas from other movies, yet failing to put them to interesting use. A good case in point is the fact that Nick Nolte voices a hallucinatory werewolf (the actor himself never actually appears on screen) drawn from one of Ruby’s tattoos – the character is clearly intended as a reference to Donnie Darko, yet he says nothing of interest and is quickly forgotten, as if just making that particular reference was enough.
In addition, the title indicates that Gus’ frequent asthma attacks (apparently brought on by his suicide attempt) are meant to have some thematic significance, but if the script intends them to be symbolic, it fails miserably in the attempt. Similarly, Hoffman was obviously needled by the idea of a heroin addict falling for a tattooist, but that also fails to deliver anything of interest.
Fortunately, Ritter’s performance (more or less in key with her established screen persona) proves engaging enough to see the film through its various pretentious patches, with David J. Myrick’s striking cinematography accentuating her distinctive, dark-eyed allure. Samuel, in turn, has a certain louche physicality (the script helpfully points out his resemblance to Mick Jagger, in case you missed it), but he’s a disappointingly dull character and it’s difficult to care about him one way or the other.
Hoffman also throws in a couple of potentially interesting cameos (poet and artist Rene Rickard as Gus’ dealer, Rosanna Arquette as his ailing mother, Iggy Pop as a conspiracy theory-spouting cellmate), but like Nolte’s werewolf, none of them has any real bite.
Ultimately, Asthma proves a frustrating experience that constantly promises more than it delivers. As a director, Hoffman has a certain amount of style and a strong visual eye, but his scriptwriting needs a lot of work. Good soundtrack, though.
Asthma is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.