If Robert Towne's Ask the Dust is the end result of 30 years of labor to bring John Fante's celebrated novel to the screen, it gravely calls into question Towne's current abilities as both a screenwriter and director. Towne's adaptation sheds no new interpretive light on Ask the Dust's literary legacy, and, even on its own terms, this is an anemic romance, undone by awkward performances and flat-footed filmmaking.
Twenty-year-old aspiring Italian-American writer Arturo Bandini, Fante's literary alter ego, is brash yet sensitive, fundamentally moral yet driven by an unquenchable, uniquely American thirst for love, lust, and romantic adventure. Bandini's conflicting values jolt and jostle inside him, finding expression primarily through Bandini's typewriter, as he tries to alchemize his experiences into fiction. Article continues below
In Ask the Dust, we find Bandini (Colin Farrell) slumming in a flea-bitten hotel room in Depression-era Bunker Hill in Los Angeles. He dreams of living the bohemian writer's life, nurtures fantasies of wining and dining the classiest blondes in town, of climbing the ladder of respectable white society. Despite himself, then, he falls hard for Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), a waitress at a local dive -- headstrong, crass, illiterate, and Mexican.
Towne's movie concerns itself largely with Arturo and Camilla's push-pull romance and, as such, it follows a thoroughly conventional arc. Arturo, the novice romantic, trades barbs and insults with Camilla, much of it rooted in class and ethnicity before the lovers' affection for each other gradually wins out. Camilla, the wounded faun and free spirit, finds a meaningful love with Arturo. And, aside from his sexual coming-of-age, the relationship gives Arturo his first taste of artistic and personal liberation, free from the despair and desperation of his Bunker Hill milieu.
In re-creating 1930s era downtown L.A. from the ground up (on sets built in South Africa), production designer Dennis Gassner lovingly evokes the neighborhood's ramshackle charm on a decidedly modest budget. Gassner's work injects some life into this otherwise yawn-inducing affair. Likewise, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's masterfully tight, shadowy compositions and sound editor Scott Hecker and his crew all serve this spare production admirably, doing what they can to resuscitate Towne's moribund pacing and dialogue.
Farrell and Hayek, both dependable performers, manage something of Arturo and Camilla's fire and frailty. For all their good intentions, they strain to find the heart of these characters. Farrell's Bandini is a compelling enough incarnation of Fante's roguish dreamer, though too brooding and mannered to contain Bandini's combustible insecurities. Hayek, however, playing a woman nearly half her age, can't get a bead on Camilla, and affects whatever emotion the scene calls for, if only to get through the damn thing. To blame is Towne pedestrian's script and direction. The writer-director's examination of the racial dynamic of their relationship treads well-worn ground, and never ventures away to make larger, bolder statements about the irony of their relationship, and the myth of California as the land of equality, opportunity.
What fails Ask the Dust, both its source material and this production per se, is its loping, overly earnest approach; Towne's bleeds all the spark and verve out of Fante's prose, never finding the cinematic equivalent of the author's jangling, psychologically driven rhythm. Ask the Dust is about the transformation of a na´ve, impetuous dreamer into a mature artist who's learned a thing or two about love and death. Never in this jerky, unsteady piece is that idea keenly felt. Indeed, Towne's technique feels more in the vein of a stodgy PBS teleplay, leaving us aching for more a expressive telling, something that does justice to the story's bittersweet, anarchic, and youthful heart.