Ask the Dust

2007-08-02 16:51
What it’s about:

An aspiring writer named Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) moves to Los Angeles in search of fame and fortune, but finds himself dragged down in the wake of the Great Depression. Struggling to produce art while still feeding himself, Bandini comes across a fiery Mexican beauty named Camilla (Salma Hayek), and a passionate but complicated love affair ensues.

What we thought of it

Ask The Dust is one of those movies that looks really great on paper. Written and directed by Oscar-winner Robert Towne from the celebrated novel by John Fante, the movie is a pet project nearly 20 years in the making. Add two hot young stars and Tom Cruise as producer, and you might reasonably expect at least moderate success. Instead the movie devolves into the title of another great American novel – a lot of sound and fury that signifies very little.

There’s no shortage of passion in the project. Farrell and Hayek bash away at each other in scene after convoluted scene, much in the way Towne and his editors bash away at the movie itself. But passion is no substitute for structure, pacing or comprehensibility – all of which Ask The Dust lacks sorely.

The most frustrating thing about the film is how close greatness it comes. So many of the scenes, had they been better handled, would have been truly memorable, but Towne simply can’t get them to gel. The acting is particularly uneven. Both Farrell and Hayek often seem to be trying lines out for the first time, unsure of what they are actually trying to say.

Towne has always been a better screenwriter than a director. His Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown remains one of the greatest of the 20th century, but his directorial efforts (Tequila Sunrise in 1988 and Without Limits in 1998) have never been much more than average. Like his other films, Ask The Dust doesn’t lack for creative vision, only for the execution of that vision.

Still, the film has its charms. The attention to details like clothing and props is laudable, and the visuals are lush and vivid. The sets, while a little stagy for modern audiences, are also scrupulously decorated.

And then there are the bountiful natural beauties on display. Our own Western Cape (standing in for Southern California) is upstaged only by Ms Hayek herself, who cavorts completely naked on a moonlit beach about thirty minutes into proceedings. The fact that the movie’s uneven structure makes the scene seem gratuitous doesn’t make it any less memorable. When it gets to DVD this is, sadly, the scene the film will be rented for most often.

Less visually attractive but no less delightful, Donald Sutherland steals every scene he’s in as a red-nosed dissolute named Hellfrick. His understated solidity is so magnetic compared to the rest of the cast that you begin to wish the filmmakers would forget Colin Farrell and follow him around instead.

As for the themes for which the novel is so famous – racism, economic depression, the struggle to write, Los Angeles – none of them are really done much justice by the film. Perhaps this is because Fante’s dreamy, self-absorbed prose is impossible to capture accurately on film without seeming overheated and silly. More likely though, Towne simply lacks the deft touch to steer the path between drama and melodrama.

Ask The Dust is a conundrum. Only fans of the book will really be able to appreciate the film’s quirks, but those same fans will be deeply disappointed by how badly the classic has been mangled. As for the rest of us, we can only look on in confusion, sensing something great lurking just below the surface, but unable to reach it.

- Alistair Fairweather
It's got passion, ambition, intelligence and even Salma Hayek naked, but Ask the Dust just doesn't work.

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