Arturo Bandini (Collin Farrell) is the son of Denver-based Italian immigrant. He moved to Los Angeles to find fame and fortune as a writer but the country is in the throes of the Great Depression. After much struggling and little success Arturo is down to his last nickel. He decides to splurge and buy one last cup of coffee at the nearby Columbia Café where he meets a feisty Mexican beauty, Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), and sparks fly in “Ask the Dust.”
Arturo and Camilla ignore the obvious attraction between them after their first meeting. He wants to be a famous writer with a tall, blond, blue-eyed beauty on his arm. Camilla wants to rise above her lowly immigrant trappings and marry a wealthy WASP. Circumstance, and Arturo’s enigmatic prejudice and lack of worldliness, keep the potential passion from bursting through, even when Camilla strips and invites Arturo to join her for a bit of skinny-dipping frolic. The budding author (he even sold a story once) sees Camilla as someone beneath him despite the fact that he has also suffered the same prejudice from others. Bandini not only has to learn how to write creatively, he also needs to learn how to live.
Ask the Dust” has been a long gestating work in the heart and mind of Oscar winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”). The writer and sometimes director (“Personal Best,” “Without Limits”) got the green light from producers, and long time collaborators, Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner to adapt and direct John Fante’s Depression Era novel. The result is a beautiful looking work but one that never rises above the two-dimensional adaptation.
Farrell and Hayek make a great looking couple but, unfortunately, there is little by way of chemistry between the two actors. The problem is, I think, with Colin Farrell as the sullen, chain-smoking Arturo. I have enjoyed the actor’s supporting performances in such films as “Intermission” and “Daredevil” (chewing scenery with vigor as knife-throwing bad guy Bullseye) but I have never taken to him in any of his starring roles. He fails, in “Ask the Dust,” to give anything more than caricature character as Bandini.
Salma Hayek does put fire into her performance as the tragic figure, Camilla. She is sexy, smart and knows what she wants. It’s too bad that Farrell dampens whatever flame the actress gives to the film. Supporting cast is minimalist with Donald Sutherland providing a cameo performance as Arturo’s seedy neighbor and muse, Hellfrick. His is an amusing performance but really only background. Idina Menzel is fine as Bandini’s sometimes lover, Jewish Vera, and plays a sympathetic, troubled character that has her own tragic past to live with.
Technical credits are outstanding – more than the film deserves – with veteran lenser Caleb Deschanel capturing things in a wash of sepia tones and beautifully soft lighting. Art direction, by Tom Hannam and Richard L. Johnson create a Los Angeles that has long disappeared. The team makes the desert wind-blown “Dust” of the title into a character in the film. Costume, by Albert Wolsky, is also first-rate. Film critic Richard Schickel provides the voiceover as Arturo’s muse, legendary newspaperman and political commentator H.L. Mencken.
Robert Towne only gets yeoman’s points with “Ask the Dust.” He may have been passionate about the project but that passion does not materialize on the screen. I give it a C.Laura:
Laura did not see this film.
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