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Ask the Dust

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 06/19/06 13:09:28

"A slice of life, deliberately paced, but worth your time"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I wondered as I watched the opening scenes of ďAsk the DustĒ why we seen to be forgetting so much of the heritage of pre-war 20th. century American culture. We remember gangsters, and in the southwest many of our habits were formed from watching our grandparentsí inability to forget the Depression and Dust Bowl, but we donít see much of the 1920s and Ď30s in films anymore.

ďAsk the DustĒ is based on a novel by John Fante, an all but forgotten writer from that era. In the film, Colin Farrell plays Arturo Bandini, a short story writer who uses the money he receives from a fiction sale to relocate to Los Angeles. It seems like an odd destination, as he has no desire to break into the movies. Why not New York? Is he just another lemming, headed for the ocean and oblivion?

Heís down to his last nickel when he meets Camilla (Salma Hayek), a headstrong Latina waitress in a cheap diner. They squabble, which is mostly his fault as heís mean when heís broke.

Their on and off relationship continues through his dealings with another woman, Vera (Idina Menzel), a Jewish gal who is disfigured above the knees and below the waist.

Vera wouldnít make much sense in the movie if it werenít for the fact that Arturo is an innocent when it comes to women and heís been advised to accumulate some experiences to write about.

One of the rather submerged themes of the film is the way all fiction writers are exploiters of everyone around them. If you know one, you canít have an odd way of scratching your nose without it showing up in a story some day. Perhaps they donít mean to steal you, but they do.

One of the surface themes is the wretched way we treat people we think are inferior to us, usually because we fear we are inferior to someone else and we need a goat to take it out on. Camilla is a Mexican, illiterate in English. Arturo is Italian-American. Donald Sutherland, as the drunk who lives in Bandiniís boarding house, has been impaired by booze. A bartender has tuberculosis. So it goes.

The other theme is the need we have for each other, even when we go out of our way to pretend we donít.

Hayek is very good as Camillaa. Sheís saucy in the Hollywoodland way of all Latina women, but Hayek allows enough of her characterís vulnerability to show through to let us know that most of that toughness is a defense.

Farrell is as good here as Iíve ever seen him. He still has a tendency to display intensity by looking tense, by clamping his teeth shut and opening his eyes too wide. Hayek helps him disguise his occasional over-acting by bringing him back down to earth.

We sometimes romanticize the Depression era by picturing it as a time of superhuman struggles. See ďCinderella ManĒ for that sort of thing. Here, writer/director Robert Towne tells us that these people are just like us. They get by and they try to find someone to love. Itís never perfect and itís never forever, but weíre lucky to get it at all.

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