Ask the Dust

(2006) ** 1/2 R
117 min. Paramount Classics. Director: Robert Towne. Cast: Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland, Eileen Atkins, Justin Kirk.

"You grew in me—like a baby." So says one lover to another in Ask the Dust, but the statement equally applies to an artist and his long-gestating works. After developing the project for decades, writer-director Robert Towne (who famously wrote Chinatown) at long last adapts John Fante's semi-autobiographical cult-classic novel set among the sun, shadows, surf, and sand of Depression-era Los Angeles.

Ask the Dust tells the tale of sexually inexperienced, aspiring writer Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) and the woman who inspires him to live and write with more gusto. Salma Hayek plays Camilla, the Mexican diner waitress who talks a good game about hitching herself to a wealthy white man, but can't quite leave the destitute Bandini alone.

When he's not looking to H.L. Mencken for inspiration (Bandini has Mencken's visage nailed to his wall), Bandini lives on oranges, wrangles with writer's block, and ponders how to spend his last nickel. He spends it on a muddy cup of joe, served up by Camilla. Immediately smitten with this "Mayan princess," a brash but insecure Bandini initiates a war of wills. Before long, the two share a naked dip; it's his first time in the ocean, proving him to be literally out of his element.

The picture comes on strong, laying out a pleasantly unpredictable cast of characters: the proprietress of Bandini's fleabag hotel (Eileen Atkins), who eyes him suspiciously as a possible Mexican; Bandini's across-the-hall neighbor (Donald Sutherland), a failed, destitute, sickly writer who was gassed in WWI and patiently awaits his death; alternate love interest Vera Rifkin (Idina Menzel), who has reason to see herself as damaged goods; and Bill, a singularly untrustworthy acquaintance of Arturo, Vera, and Camilla.

Unfortunately, only a few of the characters are allowed to develop fully, a fact justified less by Towne's L.A. chestnut "In the end, we're all strangers here" than the difficult transition from page to screen. Though Towne knew Fante personally, Ask the Dust's die-hard fans are lined up to attack the film as a softening of the hard-boiled novel. They have a point: Towne's salty script turns bittersweet and disappointingly pedestrian in its last act.

Towne happily pokes around the plot like a voracious reader exploring a bookstore: his abiding interests in Los Angeles ("A perfect place to live. And then we come along"), writing (Mencken, speaking in the voice of film critic Richard Shickel, explains that "doing more with less...is what writing is all about"), sorely tested idealism, and sex all get full play. Particular to Fante's story are themes of racial sensitivity—the lovers are both self-conscious immmigrants hoping to hit it big—and the emphemerality of existence.

Towne benefits enormously from the photography of Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff), the costumes of Albert Wolsky (Manhattan, Bugsy), and the production design of Dennis Gassner (Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink), who winningly transforms South Africa into 1930s L.A. Ask the Dust is an imperfect picture, but its idiosyncrasies are endearing in the homogenized atmosphere of today's Hollywood. Despite its flaws, this story of love and self-discovery is still more smart, stylish, and sexy than the usual fare.

[For Groucho's interview with Robert Towne, click here.]

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