Ask The Dust

on March 10, 2006 by Annlee Ellingson
There's a lovely moment in "Ask the Dust," a 30-year labor of love for writer-director Robert Towne (the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "Chinatown"), in which Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) compares Camilla (Salma Hayek) to the state of California itself, summoning the fog, the smell of eucalyptus, the dusty sunlight, and bemoans that the state is being dug up for her gold and built upon in the name of civilization. It's a metaphor that only a writer could conjure, which Bandini is, or fancies he is, first meeting Camilla, a feisty Mexican who can only get a job as a waitress in Depression-era Los Angeles, when he decides to spend his last nickel on a cup of coffee at the tavern where she works.

Unfortunately, it's a singular moment in a sprawling ode to the City of Angels that shifts gears halfway through with the jerk of the transmission of Camilla's convertible. It begins as an unlikely love story between the son of Italian immigrants, fantasizing of fame and fortune and a blonde on his arm, and a Latina eager to marry a WASP with a surname of, say, White. Their courtship is marked by antagonism, even violence, as well as gratuitous nudity that's as remarkable for when it's not used (in a later scene with co-star Idina Menzel) as when it is.

But then--perhaps not coincidentally when Bandini finds himself flush with cash from benefactor H.L. Mencken to write his Great American Novel -- their romance takes an idyllic, chaste turn. And suddenly Camilla is shy to be seen in public with her Caucasian beau. One has to wonder why, as the only one who's treated her badly because of her race, at least to our eyes, is Bandini. Oh, and out of the blue she's a pothead, too, which is not the cause of her viscous cough.

Relating his own experiences through alter ego Bandini in a four-book arc, author John Fante ostensibly based the love affair in "Ask the Dust" on his own with a woman named Maria. But, despite acute period detail and gorgeous desert cinematography by Caleb Deschanel from a South African locale, real life doesn't always shape up into a tightly structured script. Starring Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek and Donald Sutherland. Directed and written by Robert Towne. Produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Don Granger and Jonas McCord. A Paramount Classics release. Romantic drama. Rated R for some sexuality, nudity and language. Running time: 117 min

Tags: Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland, Robert Towne, Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Don Granger and Jonas McCord. A Paramount Classics release. Romantic drama

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