Ask the Dust (United States, 2006)
For Ask the Dust, director Robert Towne, adapting the novel by John Fante, has returned to the time and place of his greatest cinematic endeavor: Los Angeles in the 1930s. The setting, however, is the only similarity between Ask the Dust and Chinatown (which Towne wrote for director Roman Polanski). Despite a "noir" feel to the proceedings, this picture is a love story. There are other things going on, some of which get short shrift in the screenplay, but at the center of the narrative are a man and a woman who are destined for each other. Take away the graphic nudity (full-frontal shots of both stars) and one could almost consider Ask the Dust to be old-fashioned movie making.
Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), a "lover of beasts and men," came to Los Angeles five months ago with $150 in his pocket (from a short story published in H.L. Mencken's anthology The American Mercury) and the expectation of writing the great American love story. His ultimate goal: fortune, fame, a good life, and glamorous women. Thus far, all he has accomplished is to exhaust his financial resources. When he's down to his last nickel, he meets Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), a waitress in a coffee shop. She gives him lousy service; he insults her. But it proves to be a memorable encounter. Despite the surface antagonism between them, they are drawn to one another. Arturo soon discovers that there are two great loves in his life: writing and Camilla.
The interracial aspect of Arturo and Camilla's affair is touched on, but not explored in a meaningful way. The racial prejudices of the day - against Mexican-born workers such as Camilla - are highlighted in a scene in which the couple goes to a movie, but they arguably deserve more coverage. A similar comment can be made regarding Arturo's reservations about his Italian background. Ethnicity is a theme in Ask the Dust, but it never emerges into the forefront.
Several of the supporting characters are interesting but underdeveloped. There's Arturo's run-down neighbor, Hellfrick, played by a wild-eyed and mumbling Donald Sutherland. Vera (Idina Menzel) is a lonely woman who latches onto Arturo as her vision of the ideal man, then has her fantasies fulfilled when he shows kindness to her. And there's a bartender with an unsavory connection to Camilla. Towne spends time with each of these characters, but it's a delicate balancing act to give them form and substance without robbing too much time from the central lovers. With Vera, he succeeds. The other two, however, add little more than background color.
1933 Los Angeles (the date is established by the Long Beach earthquake, which occurs during the film) is re-created with the kind of loving attention one would expect from a director who holds a romanticized vision of the city as it existed seven decades ago. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's near-perfect framing of every shot makes Ask the Dust a gorgeous film to look at. (His shooting of the ocean skinny-dipping scene is masterful.) If nothing else, the production deserves consideration in the Best Cinematography category of next year's Oscars. Perhaps it's because of my familiarity with Chinatown, but there's an almost noir feel to Ask the Dust which is belied by its subject matter. The seeming contradiction between tone and content is not a detriment, however - it lends a layer of unpredictability to the story.
Although Salma Hayek is excellent as the feisty, sexy Camilla, Colin Farrell is merely okay. His is an understated and somewhat bland performance, although it should be noted that there is chemistry between the leads. They play well off one another, and the sex scene is erotic. Farrell uses a decent American accent, which is important. The novel Ask the Dust is told from a first-person perspective. In order to convey that, Towne has written a huge amount of voiceover dialogue that gets us into Arturo's head. This requires Farrell to do a lot of talking, even when his character isn't speaking. I found the voiceover to be less distracting than is usually the case because it's an important aspect of how the story is presented. Other than going this route, it's almost impossible to represent a first-person point-of-view.
With Ask the Dust, Towne has not given us the great American love story, but he has presented us with a captivating view of 1933 Los Angeles and a tale of romance that involves us in the plight of the characters. At a time when juvenile movies often dominate theaters, this is an adult movie through-and-through, and evidence that there are filmmakers who care about entertaining a more mature audience.
Ask the Dust (United States, 2006)
Cast: Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Idina Menzel, Donald Sutherland
Screenplay: Robert Towne, based on the novel by John Fante
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: Ramin Djawadi, Heitor Pereira
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Classics