I spent about half of Asthma gritting my teeth at the lead. Spare me another self-indulgent yarn about a well-off white kid slumming it as a self-described artist in New York City, pining for the gritty, “authentic” days while he blames his position on everything but his own fecklessness. The thing is, for all the meandering, it eventually becomes clear that writer/director Jake Hoffman doesn’t have much more patience for this guy than I do.
I’ll give Hoffman credit for tackling more substantial fare on his first time in the director’s chair than his father did. Gus (Benedict Samuel) is a wannabe rocker and heroin addict who keeps running short of breath when his withdrawal starts to kick in. He’s got a crush on Ruby (Krysten Ritter), who’s not interested. But she seems too polite to simply shut him down.
One day, Gus sees someone leave a fancy convertible outside his building, so he takes it. On his joyride, he sees Ruby and insists she join him. She says she’s about to catch a train out to see some friends in Connecticut, so he says he’ll drive her. It’s not until he lands the car in a ditch that he admits it was stolen.
Ruby’s friends turn out to be a bunch of New-Agers in thrall to a guru figure (Goran Visnjic), who I don’t really find that much deeper or more insightful than Gus. They are, at least, more committed to the idea of getting along with other people — or at least with each other. Gus, on the other hand, is selfish to the core, and it eventually becomes clear that this isn’t meant as a good thing for once.
And yet, how interesting can it be to see a colossal jerk try and fail to learn the lesson, “don’t be a colossal jerk”? There’s no real growth here. As tormented by an inner “werewolf” voice as Gus may be (Nick Nolte), he doesn’t actually learn from his guilt and self-loathing. He just stumbles from one backsliding screwup to another until Ruby finally gives up entirely, and he has to find someone new that he can leech off of until they give up on him too.
Yes, growth and change aren’t the only character arcs that are worthwhile in movies, but a film has to be a lot stronger, or have something more interesting to offer in their place. Gus is meant to stay in the same place while we realize, around him, that he’s been a jerk the whole time, and his grungy, starving-artist pose at the beginning was always hollow and meaningless. If there’s someone over, say, 30 who still needs to learn this lesson, then they’ve got bigger problems than seeing this movie. But there are plenty of kids who grow up seeing this guy being glorified over and over again, and it’s nice to see someone push back for once.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.