Ask the Dust (R) ★★

Review Date: March 10th, 2006

With its noir-ish literary roots, a Depression-Era L.A. setting and screenwriter Robert Towne’s Chinatown legacy, Ask the Dust practically begs comparison to that ‘70s cinema masterpiece. Unfortunately, the new film--which Towne also directed--gets left eating the earlier work’s dust.


Towne’s film is a noble but ultimately flawed attempt to adapt author John Fante’s highly regarded 1930s novel (the screenwriter discovered it and befriended the author while researching Chinatown and spent over three decades trying to bring it to the screen). It tells the tale of wannabe writer and second generation Italian American Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), who comes to the sunny Sodom-by-the-Sea to seek fame and fortune by penning the Great American Novel and collides with a headstrong, sharp-tongued Mexican waitress Camilla (Salma Hayek)--a far cry from the beautiful blonde of his romantic fantasies. But she too isn’t looking for an Italian--she longs to marry a WASP and shed her Latin identity. The two tangle--and become entangled--with each other as they try to make their dreams come true in the misnamed City of Angels. It’s a potent premise--a racially charged romance set against a vivid Day of the Locust-style backdrop--that gets off to a stylish start, but quickly gets bogged down in a morass of too-familiar, oh-so-soap opera sentiment.


Looking perfectly fit for a fedora, Colin Farrell attacks his role with an abundance of passion, wit and verve, and the strength of his performance carries the film through many of its rockier trails. As well, Salma Hayek practically radiates sensuality AND a keen intelligence in one of most fully realized performances to date. The two strike some very palpable sparks--fireworks, even--during both their amusing verbal sparring matches and their highly charged sex scenes (yes, both her caliente curves and his bad boy beefcake are on full--and full frontal--display, to strong effect). Both performers lift the film to heights it might otherwise not have achieved but are let down by the film’s lugubrious pacing and pat, uninvolving third act. Idina Menzel (of Rent fame) pockets nearly every scene she’s in as an eccentric woman obsessed with Farrell’s character, delivering a performance that deftly spins its initial quirky, comic appeal on a dime into a more moving note of tragedy and sympathy.


Towne’s abilities behind the camera--in films such as Tequila Sunrise and Without Limits--have often taken a back seat to his stellar reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest living screenwriters. Still, his directorial gifts are considerable, as he proves again in Ask the Dust. He adroitly visualizes the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles circa 1939 with the aid of a masterful set built in the unlikely locale of South Africa, and his lengthy rehearsal process and trust of actors helped concoct great chemistry between Hayek and Farrell. Where he really trips up is in the editing: the film plays like a screenwriter’s full version if his own final draft. The lack of nips and tucks in the cutting room slows the pace and progression to a fault, resulting in scenes that play too long and turgidly. After the too-slow march to the inevitable end, you’ll feel like you’re the one who should be brushing the dust off as you leave the theater.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 stars.