Combustible Celluloid
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With: Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland, Idina Menzel, Eileen Atkins, Justin Kirk, Dion Basco, Jeremy Crutchley, William Mapother, Tamara Craig Thomas
Written by: Robert Towne, based on a novel by John Fante
Directed by: Robert Towne
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality, nudity and language
Running Time: 117
Date: 02/02/2006

Ask the Dust (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

From 'Dust' to Gone

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Labors-of-love can be wounded by sour times. Whether it be a 20 year-old screenplay tucked in a drawer or an on-again, off-again long cherished dream project, authors don't always have the kind of long-term insight that might guide them through the extended, dark process that ends with the light of day.

Sometimes it works, as when Clint Eastwood purchased Unforgiven and stored it away for 20 years until he was old enough to play the lead part.

Other times, the results are far less serendipitous. When Barry Levinson achieved success as a writer and director, he unearthed a beloved old script called Toys that turned into one of his worst films.

Last year writer/actor/comedian Paul Reiser realized a lifelong dream of working with Peter Falk in a movie that became The Thing About My Folks. It received such nasty advance word of mouth that the distributor pulled it from San Francisco theaters and released it only in outlying areas.

Sadly, Robert Towne's new 30-year dream project Ask the Dust fares about the same.

Based on the 1939 cult novel by John Fante -- which Towne discovered while researching Chinatown -- Ask the Dust tells the story of a young Italian-American writer, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), who lives in a cheap Los Angeles hotel and types away at his dream of success.

Down to his last nickel, he splurges on a cup of coffee in a local cantina and finds himself both drawn to and repelled by a Mexican barmaid, Camilla (Salma Hayek).

The bulk of the movie concerns this mismatched pair trying to decipher their complex feelings for one another, and attempting to overcome their racial mistrust and even their own self-loathing.

The film's first half plays fairly well, as Towne dilutes the heavy material with a good dose of early Los Angeles atmosphere; if the camera wandered over to another part of town, we might even catch a glimpse of Jake Gittes or Evelyn Mulwray going about their business.

Ask the Dust is beautifully photographed with a golden gleam by Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Natural) and edited by Robert K. Lambert, using the natural space around Arturo's hotel room almost as a third major character.

When Arturo climbs out his ground-level window to take a walk, we get an exact feel of locale, time, temperature and even atmosphere. We can even tell by Arturo's gait how well or how poorly he thinks he has written that day.

Towne brings several other characters into the film's first half, which also serves to break up the racial tension and to round out Arturo's character.

The most delightful is Arturo's neighbor in the little hotel, Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), who sometimes borrows money and also tells Arturo about a scheme to steal milk from the back of a delivery truck. Sutherland is an old pro, teetering around in a gnarled bathrobe, perhaps half-drunk or even half-insane, telling his entire life story in the pauses between words.

If only Ask the Dust could have remained at this level, but Arturo and Camilla eventually succumb to their passion and retreat to a beach house, away from the prying eyes of racists who would frown on their union. It's here that Arturo teaches Camilla to read and where Camilla first coughs (most movie buffs should already know what that means).

This more focused, more distilled second half brings with it more troubles. The film seethes anger and hatred, and neither Farrell nor Hayek seems to know how to concentrate or channel it. (Perhaps this is Towne's failing as director?)

Rather than finding an easy flow, the characters begin to work against us. From there, the film outstays its welcome and winds up with an unsatisfying thunk. It's a rather baffling experience; the ending can even cause viewers to forget the parts of the film that worked.

One thing is for sure: the vision of Ask the Dust that played in Towne's head for the past 30 years must have been better than this. Perhaps Orson Welles had the right idea with his unfinished "Don Quixote." If you keep working on your dream project for years and years, but never finish, then it gets to remain a dream project -- a perfect thing -- and the critics and the viewing public can never take that away.

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