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Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

A FLASHY, TRASHY look at the underworld of crystal meth users that morphs into a baroque revenge thriller somewhere along the way, ``The Salton Sea'' spends its first half rubbing our faces in depravity then expects us to follow a convoluted crime plot line through part two.

Television veteran and first-time feature director D.J. Caruso tries to make all of this as enjoyable as possible. Jokey sequences, lively cinematic technique and a lovingly rendered, lower-depths production design are all called into service to help keep this existential tragedy watchable. But the film can't shake its own oppressive squalor. Nor can it overcome the impression that it's a bunch of scenes from ``Boogie Nights'' redone poorly followed by an easier-to-follow but far-less-interesting ``Memento'' mimeo.

Wearing a woodpecker hairdo and a tattoo of Death looming across his back, Val Kilmer plays our uncertain, hard-boiled narrator Danny Parker, whom we're incongruously introduced to while he plays trumpet in a burning room filled with stacks of money. He's a speed freak and an informer for two corrupt L.A. cops (Anthony LaPaglia and Doug Hutchison), but as the opening scene indicates, there is more to Danny than his rather elaborate surface presentation indicates.

Through flashbacks and a good deal of look-at-this! cinematic trickery, we are gradually exposed to the real story. It's complicated and not very believable, but revealed at an intriguingly deliberate pace that holds viewer interest, even when the scene you're watching at any given moment is too just too silly for words. A similar approach is evident in screenwriter Tony Gayton's script for the current Sandra Bullock thriller ``Murder by Numbers.'' He has more fun with ``Salton Sea,'' but the overall effect can sometimes be just as trying.

Events revolve around an increasingly desperate Danny's efforts to middleman a huge drug deal before members of the Mexican Mafia get him for ratting out one of their guys. This brings him in contact with the film's most amusing character, Vincent D'Onofrio's Pooh-Bear, a desert-dwelling psycho-bubba with a plastic nose and an alarmingly inquisitive badger. Between brewing up kilos of crystal, Pooh-Bear entertains himself with miniature, live pigeon re-enactments of the JFK assassination.

The same minds that invented this witty scenario, however, also come up with many a misfired, crank-fueled delusion. The bottom is scraped in some dive bar, where one of the film's many babbling idiots (Adam Goldberg) details a scheme to heist Bob Hope's stool sample from Cedars and sell it on eBay. This is accompanied by an elderly gentleman's karaoke rendition, delivered from his wheelchair, of Lou Reed's ``Walk on the Wild Side.''

There is more heart-rending stuff: tragic, bathetic and usually deceptive. And buried somewhere in all of this are some serious inquiries into identity and how much it matters. But ``The Salton Sea'' is such a hit-and-miss proposition, whether anything about it should matter much to us at all becomes the movie's most pertinent question.

THE SALTON SEA - Two and one half stars

(Rated R: violence, drug use, sex)

Starring: Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Luis Guzman, Doug Hutchison, Anthony LaPaglia, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Kara Unger, Chandra West.

Director: D.J. Caruso.

Running time: 1 hr. 43 min.

Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Criterion 6, Santa Monica.




Val Kilmer and Chandra West spend a quiet moment beside ``The Salton Sea.''
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 26, 2002

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