- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Robert Towne has let John Fante’s 1939 novel “Ask the Dust” marinate in his synapses for decades.

Mr. Towne, best known for his Oscar-winning “Chinatown” script, finally got the chance to shoot Mr. Fante’s L.A. story on his own terms.

The years haven’t been kind to Mr. Towne’s vision.

“Ask the Dust” follows a pair of dreamers as they fight and fall in love in 1930s-era Los Angeles, but Mr. Towne’s work is undone by two inscrutable lead performances. Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek prove more combative than compatible fighting ignorance and their own egos in the City of Angels.

“Dust” follows a young, first-generation Italian writer named Arturo Bandini (Mr. Farrell), who’s down to his last nickel but still carries his head higher than anyone he meets. He splurges on a cup of coffee at the nearest greasy spoon, where he meets a Mexican waitress (Miss Hayek) with whom he instantly clashes.

It’s irritation at first sight, and it’s partly meant to play up Arturo’s romantic infantilism. He all but accuses her of having cooties. Still, she doesn’t ignore his immature gestures, and soon an awkward romance blooms.

Mr. Bandini strikes us more as a poser than serious author, but sporadic checks for his writing keep him afloat while reminding us there’s a brain behind his bluster. Mr. Farrell plays the author like a man-child desperate to tuck as many life experiences under his belt as time will permit. The Irish actor buries his natural brogue, but he also inadvertently entombs his natural magnetism.

It’s getting easier and easier to forget why we got all hot and bothered about Mr. Farrell in the first place.

We’d say more about Miss Hayek’s Camilla, but the film fleshes her out so thinly we’re left speechless.

Their love is tested both by Arturo’s fitful successes and her connections to previous lovers. A surrealistic subplot involving another woman to woo Arturo crumbles under its own artifice.

Mr. Fante’s novel couldn’t have been easy to bring to the screen. It’s an atmospheric journey of lovers trying to thrive in a city that both attracts and repels dreamers. Mr. Towne gracefully orchestrates both the cultural clashes and arid settings — the latter a tricky feat considering costs forced the crew to make South Africa stand in for Los Angeles.

The writer/director also elicits a comically dark turn from Donald Sutherland, who flits on and off the screen as the creepy man living next to Arturo.

“Ask the Dust” reeks of grand intentions, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel bathes the screen in golden hues that make even Arturo’s ratty room look romantic. But no cinematic fairy dust can turn this leaden love affair into one to remember.

**

TITLE: “Ask the Dust”

RATING: R (Nudity, sexual situations and adult language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Robert Towne based on the novel “Ask the Dust” by John Fante

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.askthedust-movie.com/enter.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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