They don't make them like "Ask the Dust" anymore. That might explain what it's taken Robert Towne decades to mount his adaptation of the John Fante novel. The resulting film shows exactly the kind of cinematic craftsmanship you might expect from this kind of passion project, but also an occasional flatness that also may come from Towne's dedication to the source material.
Colin Farrell is Fante's recurring alter-ego Arturo Bandini, a struggling Italian-American writer who comes to Los Angeles in the 1930s with dreams of fame and fortune, but ends up penniless in a cramped studio. The volatile scribe is drawn to Camilla (Salma Hayek), a fiery Mexican waitress. Arturo is trying to make his name and Camilla is desperately trying to deny hers, searching for assimilation at any cost. Representing two different spins on the American Dream, Arturo and Camilla fall in love, but they're kept apart by their own tempers and by the conventions of their society.
Towne, who first discovered "Ask the Dust" while researching his "Chinatown" script, knowns the cultural terrain of Los Angeles perfectly, even if this film was shot in South Africa. Using Egyptian palm trees, Mexican architecture and the multi-ethnic cast of dreamers as his foundation, Towne constructs a thoughtful portrait of a melting pot city in which the landscape and its inhabitants are engaged in a big game of make-believe, pretending to be something different in a city built atop the desert. "Ask the Dust" functions as a companion to "Chinatown" or "The Day of the Locust" ("Locust" co-star Donald Sutherland also appears in "Dust") as examinations of proto-Hollywood. While those films approached LA's superficiality and absence of roots with cynicism and caution, "Dust" is romantic, if doomed. Towne's interest is in a Los Angeles that may never have existed, the Los Angeles early residents yearned for.
Working just outside of Cape Town, Oscar-winning production designer Dennis Gassner and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have made a version of Los Angeles that goes beyond the typical sepia-toned depictions of classic Los Angeles. From Towne's crackling dialogue to Albert Wolsky's costumes to the score by Ramin Djawadi and Heitor Pereira, every aspect of "Ask the Dust" feels authentic.
"Ask the Dust" is a resolutely old-fashioned movie and Towne's earnestness could well alienate some viewers. Certain plotpoints Towne could have polished off to avoid eye-rolling remain intact and when the characters aren't bickering, they speak in such corny platitudes of love that Towne's retro intentions begin to get exhausting. It doesn't help that Farrell and Hayek are sharp and engaging when their characters fight, but wilt somewhat when they're overtaken by woo. The actors' graphic nudity and love scenes fit with the narrative, but mark a rare detour from the classic melodrama framework.
No, they don't make them like this anymore, which will make "Ask the Dust" a tough sell, though for viewers looking for literate filmmaking in the post-Oscars wilderness, "Dust" fills a need.