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Ask the Dust
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The real love story here is between Towne and L.A."
4 stars

Robert Towne struggled for more than two decades to bring John Fante’s acclaimed novel “Ask the Dust” to the big screen before he accumulated enough industry goodwill (thanks to his screenplays for various Tom Cruise films, including “The Firm,” “Days of Thunder” and the first two “Mission: Impossible” films), not to mention a couple of reasonably bankable stars, to make his dream a reality. While watching the resulting film, you can acutely feel every bit of that struggle, for good and for ill. On the one hand, Towne falls into the same trap that so many filmmakers have unwittingly entered when they have been given the go-ahead on a long-planned dream project–it feels as if he has lived with it for so long that he no longer has enough distance from it to tell the story in a manner that will be compelling, or even understandable, to those who haven’t dedicated so much of their time to it. On the other hand, while he may have failed to pull the big things off completely, he gets a lot of the little things just right–enough of them to transform what could have been an all-out disaster into a flawed but intriguing work that is still worth checking out despite its imperfections.

Set in Depression-era Los Angeles, one a million miles removed from the one Towne looked at in his screenplay for “Chinatown,” the film stars Colin Farrell as Arturo Bandini, a young Italian man who has journeyed west to achieve his two dreams in life–he wants to be a famous writer and he wants to score with the kind of blue-eyed blonde beauty that for him symbolizes the American dream in all its glory. As the film opens, he hasn’t quite pulled off either one yet–he is still callow and inexperienced when it comes to women and he spends most of his time staring at his typewriter while contemplating how to avoid the incessant eviction notices stuffed under the door (“My landlady has done more writing than I have.”) and deciding what to do with what is literally his last nickel. At a local diner, he meets Mexican waitress Camilla (Salma Hayek) and is immediately struck by her. However, he inexplicably treats her with cruelty and disdain and is shocked to discover that she is more than able to dish out the scorn in more than equal measure. It seems that Camilla is more like him than he could possibly imagine–she too yearns to shed herself of the shame of her ethnic heritage by meeting and marrying the kind of true-blue American type that is Arturo’s opposite.

Despite this animosity, there is clearly an attraction between the two but Arturo is seemingly unwilling to sully himself by falling for a common Mexican, even when she looks like Salma Hayek and takes him out for an evening of skinny-dipping. Instead, he finds himself going with the mysterious Vera (Idina Menzel), a woman who professes to love his writing but, more importantly, looks more like the kind of classic American beauty that he thinks he needs to be a real man. However, he still can’t shake his strange attraction to Camilla and when a surprise development puts an end to his relationship to Vera, he writes an anguished letter to H.L. Mencken (heard in voice-over provided by film critic Richard Schickel), the noted writer who has purchased a couple of Arturo’s stories for a magazine that he edits, and the response that he gets inspires him in both his professional and personal life; he learns how to take stock of his life and transform it into art (or at least a book very much like “Ask the Dust”) while allowing himself to accept Camilla. He succeeds in the former but he allows his prejudices to get the better of him once again, causing Camilla to storm out on him again before the inevitable tragic conclusion.

I have not yet read Fante’s book but I am willing to bet on what two elements dominate the story. For starters, I would presume that it gives space to explain Arturo’s character–especially in regards to his self-loathing towards his own ethnicity and how this manifests itself in his treatment of Camilla–so that his cruelty towards someone he is so obviously attracted to makes sense. In addition, I would also speculate that the central narrative arc of the book is dedicated to showing how Arturo learns to shed his juvenile attitudes towards race and class and gradually begins to grow up, both as a man and as an artist. The flaw with Towne’s adaptation is that, in an effort to pare down the story into a two-hour movie, these are the very elements that seem to have fallen by the wayside. It is never made clear from the outset why Arturo acts towards Camilla in the way that he does and we are left with scenes in which our central character is treating this woman in a hurtful and disdainful manner for no explainable reason whatsoever. Later on, his transformation occurs just as suddenly and we are left struggling to understand what brought about the sudden and inexplicable change. Towne is not a dummy by any means–he is one of the smartest screenwriters in the business–and I know that he knows exactly why Arturo behaves the way he does. However, he seems to have forgotten that the vast majority of the audience probably haven’t absorbed the story and characters as he has over the years. By cutting out these details, he leaves us with numerous scenes in which Arturo and Camilla act in ways that are at times frankly unfathomable.

Flaws like this would ordinarily be enough to stop most movies in their tracks but “Ask the Dust” manages to overcome them to a degree by getting a lot of the smaller things right. Over the years, Towne has developed into one of the premier chroniclers of the history of Los Angeles through works such as “Shampoo,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Chinatown” and “The Two Jakes” and “Ask the Dust” deserves a place amongst those titles simply as a work of cultural anthropology. His L.A., a place choked with the ever-present dust bearing down on the boulevards of broken dreams and dreamers where even the most innocent sights have an uneasy edge (at one point, we see a reconciled Arturo and Camilla playing touch football with a group of Japanese kids and ruefully realize that most of those children would be rounded up and put in camps in a few short years simply because of their ethnicity), is less a location than a living, breathing character and it may come as a shock to some to discover that the film, beautifully shot by ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, was filmed not in Los Angeles (where the landscape has changed so utterly as to make it impossible to shoot there) but in a meticulous recreation in South Africa.

And while the hate-love relationship between Arturo and Camilla is never dramatically convincing, it does allow Towne to indulge in the kind of flinty banter that he has always excelled at and his two leads are more than up to the task. On the surface, the notion of Arturo and Camilla being portrayed by the likes of Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek sounds like Hollywood miscasting at its looniest–the idea of Farrell playing a callow young man inexperienced in the ways of love sounds ridiculous and Hayek is perhaps a little too old and entirely too gorgeous as a poor and downtrodden Latina waitress–but both manage to overcome these hurdles and turn in touching and reasonably effective performances. In addition, Donald Sutherland contributes a strong turn as Arturo’s gone-to-seed neighbor that serves as a strangely affecting homage to his performance in another film based on a notable novel about 1930's L.A., “The Day of the Locust” and Idina Menzel makes such a impression in her brief scenes as the mysterious Vera that when she disappears for good, her absence is difficult to get used to for a while.

“Ask the Dust” is admittedly kind of a mess but it is the kind of intriguing mess whose virtues more than compensate for its shortcomings. In its best moments, it contains sparks of life and intelligence that generally aren’t found in more conventional and even-keeled films. For those willing to overlook the flaws in order to experience such moments, “Ask the Dust” should prove to be a perplexing but ultimately rewarding experience.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14090&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/17/06 00:06:26
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  10-Mar-2006 (R)
  DVD: 25-Jul-2006



Directed by
  Robert Towne

Written by
  Robert Towne

  Colin Farrell
  Salma Hayek
  Justin Kirk
  Donald Sutherland
  Eileen Atkins
  Idina Menzel

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