3 stars (out of four)
Some films play a shell game with their own flaws, drawing your eye away from what doesn't work while murmuring: Hang in there. Robert Towne's adaptation of "Ask the Dust," written in 1939 by an unsung master of Los Angeles fiction, John Fante, is one such film--eccentric, miscast (though stimulatingly so), not for all tastes but far from flavorless.
Towne's mash note to a vanished, prettily tarnished L.A. will simply not pay off with a lot of moviegoers. For much of the story the narrating protagonist is a blowhard and a butthead. Towne's long history with his subject--he came across "Ask the Dust" more than 30 years ago, while researching his masterly "Chinatown"--is akin to a graduate student's lifelong crush on a fiendishly seductive writer. It took Towne a decade to finance a project carrying the aura of a specialty item long consigned to Hollywood's back burner. (The secret power source for greater and lesser L.A.: thousands of back burners, running on fumes.)
But the movie keeps you watching, particularly if you have a weak spot for the struggling-writer genre with its attendant romantic balderdash; a taste for evocations of Depression-era L.A.; or a scenic interest in either Colin Farrell or Salma Hayek. Neither performer is ideally cast in this astringent tale of a couple of cultural misfits drawn to each other and to L.A.'s shimmer of sun-baked promise. Towne, who remains a far better writer than a director, fails to activate the crucial early scenes between the main characters, which are full of ethnic taunts and dangerous emotional curves. Yet when Hayek, as a Mexican-born waitress, and Farrell, as an Italian-American writer on the make, romp naked in the waves or, later, consummate their prickly-pear affair in a beach house as picturesque as they are, "Ask the Dust" offers ancillary compensations that have little to do with that old standby, narrative.
Over and over Fante (1909-1983) wrote about himself through his alter-ego creation, Arturo Bandini. In "Ask the Dust," set in the early '30s, the immigrants' son dreaming of literary glory has newly arrived in L.A. from Colorado. Arturo lives in a tiny street-level room in a boardinghouse--no Jews or Mexicans allowed, says the dour landlady played by Eileen Atkins--in the downtown L.A. Bunker Hill district. There he awaits inspiration for something big, a naif disguised as a sport.
When he meets Camilla Lopez, beer-slinger at a nearby saloon, he's thrown off his pathetic little game so badly, all he can do is make fun of the huaraches on her feet. Bandini, who put up with his share of schoolyard epithets in his day, has finally met somebody he thinks he can look down on. Yet a two-way current of lust sparks their attraction/repulsion act.
Everybody in "Ask the Dust" suffers from outsiders' disease. In addition to Arturo and Camilla, there's Vera Rivkin (Idina Menzel), a physically scarred literary stalker as well as an example of the most disoriented of all Southern Californians, the recently expatriated New Yorker. Arturo's boardinghouse neighbor (Donald Sutherland) is a Minnesota native who was "gassed in the Great War and gassed ever since."
Arturo's anguish belongs to a special breed: It's not just anguish, it's virginal Catholic self-loathing broke-writer anguish, which is like coming in first in the Anguish Preakness. Farrell suggests only so much of this, and he fights hard against his own hawklike charisma for much of the movie. As for Hayek, she is playing a character described by Fante as "not beautiful." Oh, well. "Oh for a Mexican girl!" Arturo cries in the novel. The line isn't in the screenplay, but whenever Hayek glides into frame--not since Sophia Loren has there been such a glider, with a good actress to go along with it--it's there, unspoken. Towne's direction, never that fluid to begin with, turns to stone when faced with his leading lady.
The film re-creates Bunker Hill and environs in a sweetly artificial way, from the Third Street tunnel down to the trolley tracks. It was shot in South Africa, since hardly a single square inch of modern-day L.A. could pass for the '30s. Production designer Dennis Gassner's settings, serving as the backdrops for a series of smoldering glances between Towne's smolderers-in-chief, are given a honeyed, bronzed glow by veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. The duds are swell.
By the time Camilla develops the sort of cough made famous by another Camille, the movie enters its own realm of storybook romanticism. Whether you buy it depends on how you respond to such idylls as the beach-cottage vacation Arturo and Camilla enjoy en route to their respective destinies. (Towne took a line or two from the novel and expanded them into a long series of scenes.) "Ask the Dust" tackles large subjects: prejudice learned and unlearned, love's healing balm. But as much as anything, the film is about the way Hayek and Farrell give each other the cold shoulder, and then the ha-cha. Like the man said: The eyes have it.
'Ask the Dust'
Directed by Robert Towne; screenplay by Towne, based on the novel by John Fante; cinematography by Caleb Deschanel; production design by Dennis Gassner; music by Ramin Djawadi and Heitor Pereira; edited by Robert K. Lambert; produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Don Granger and Jonas McCord. A Paramount Classics release; opens Friday at the Landmark Century, Landmark Renaissance and Evanston CineArts theaters. Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: R (for some sexuality, nudity and language)
Arturo Bandini - Colin Farrell
Camilla Lopez - Salma Hayek
Hellfrick - Donald Sutherland
Mrs. Hargraves - Eileen Atkins
Vera Rivkin - Idina Menzel
Sammy White - Justin Kirk