By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 08, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s not too hard to see why Robert Pattinson was chosen — months ? before he put the gleam in 20 million Twilight fans’ eyes — to play the young Salvador Dalí in Little Ashes. With his hair slicked back in elegant ’20s style, and those giant, saucerish orbs popping out of their sockets in mock amazement, Pattinson looks startlingly like Dali even before he starts to grow the artist’s trademark upside-down mustache. The actor makes a great entrance, emerging from a car in ruffles, a Louise Brooks haircut, and a high theatrical pout, all to greet — or, more accurately, to ignore — his fellow students at a ? university in Madrid. But don’t get your hopes up: This androgynous exhibitionist turns out to be the most wilting of wallflowers on the inside.

Little Ashes tells the tale, largely speculative, of Dali’s student romance with the budding leftist poet Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran), and the movie has the dubious distinction of using their moony homoerotic love affair didactically, as a way to trash Dali the artist. The relationship, which climaxes with a midnight swim that looks like an outtake from an ? Esther Williams water ballet, is supposed to express the “real” Dali. Whereas the raging, antibourgeois, satirically mad surrealist he becomes is treated as a fraud — a cover-up ? for his tender self. Even if you buy that (and I didn’t — I love Dali’s visionary vulgarity too much), Pattinson and Beltran are stuck with a rudderless script, and they make a soft, dull pair. I wish the film had more of Matthew McNulty’s firebrand performance ? as Luis Buñuel, whose collaboration with Dali on the revolutionary short film Un Chien Andalou comes off here as an arty caprice that interrupted the cause of true love. I can’t imagine what Dali or Buñuel would have made of such bourgeois sentimentality. C?