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'Salton Sea' drowns in its own misery

| Friday, July 5, 2002

"The Salton Sea" plays like a downbeat "Leaving Las Vegas," if you can imagine wanting to be that hopeless.

Hold the sprockets up to the blinding sun, and you can find flecks of sardonic humor.

Take the beginning: Val Kilmer, as a speed freak who says he's either Danny Parker or Tom Van Allen ("I really don't know"), sits in a burning building, flames dancing around him, playing his trumpet.

"As you can see," he narrates, cooler than cool, "I don't have a helluva lot of time left. … But don't give up on me yet. Not 'till I've told my whole story."

Where you see the ellipses, he digresses to provide a history of methedrene, whose use he ascribes to a U.S. president and to 20 percent of the Japanese during World War II.

Heavily tattooed and used up, he begins a tale that meanders as freely as a druggie's nightmare, making little sense for about half of its length.

You're way ahead of the game if you understand going in that his dead wife is Liz (Chandra West), who was fatally injured during a drug deal, and that the Salton Sea is a spot in the California desert where they were happiest. Happiest what• This is living•

Every character in the picture is dirty, including the narcs Morgan (Doug Hutchison) and Garcetti (Anthony LaPaglia), who are strong-arming Danny to act as an undercover agent.

The menagerie of dealers and junkies includes Danny's best friend, Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard), the dangerously deranged Bobby (Glenn Plummer) and Kujo (Adam Goldberg).

Colette (Deborah Kara Unger), Danny's new neighbor, is violently abused throughout by her lover, Quincy (Luis Guzman).

The piece de resistance of Tony Gayton's screenplay, though, is the exceptionally scuzzy, sadistic Pooh-Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio), a cannibal who snorted until he had to have his nose removed. He replaced it with one that makes him look like a pig. He sounds and behaves like a swine.

Pooh-Bear manufactures crystal methedrine at his desert retreat.

There's a certain aberrant interest in watching dregs interact with uglier dregs and in the revelations of withheld information. But as self-consciously directed by D.J. Caruso — one of those look-Ma-I'm-directing-my-sox-off jobs — "The Salton Sea" is uncommonly unpleasant, off-the-wall artsy and so slo-o-o-o-w you might want to slip the projectionist a metronome.

Many an alcoholic private eye in '40s film noirs scraped himself together enough to make coherent sense of the case he was working. Danny's progressive self-destruction, as he labors to avenge his wife, just exasperates because we're strapped to his back, and he's sinking fast.

Despite the grunge, Kilmer's Danny is the healthiest-looking junkie in movies.

There's no point of entry here. "The Salton Sea" is one more movie that seems to have been shot, edited and filtered through a druggie sensibility it opts to view from the inside.

The film is hardly illuminating, which is why, despite Kilmer's name atop and an $18 million budget, Warner Bros. passed the picture along to its Classics division, where it has taken in $700,000 in two months (including New York).

It looks for something tragically ennobling and hip in Danny's quest. It just finds … him.

Blink, and you'll miss the portrayal of Liz's parents by two first-rate actors, Shirley Knight and R. Lee Ermey.

'The Salton Sea'


Director: D.J. Caruso
Stars: Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Luis Guzman
MPAA Rating: R, for strong violence, drug use, language and some sexuality
Where: The Oaks, Oakmont
stars

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