Depression Era writer Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) has moved to Los Angeles to find inspiration beyond his destitution and failing health. At a local café, he meets a Mexican waitress named Camilla (Salma Hayek), and is immediately smitten, but shows his attraction through rude behavior. Fortunately, Camilla is enchanted by Arturo's baffling ways and the two begin an affair that, for him, provides the muse he's looking for, and for her, the distraction she needs.
An adaptation of the celebrated novel by John Fante, "Ask the Dust" returns writer/director Robert Towne back to his "Chinatown" roots. The filmmaker is back in dreamy old Los Angeles, depicting a golden time of growth encrusted with a rotting population of dreamers. Towne employs cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to cover the sandy terrain with luscious detail and, when all else fails, the picture looks flawless, providing terrific era detail to backdrop the story.
It's easy to see what tickled Towne about this story. "Dust" features two protagonists who are completely unlikable, thus providing some faint spark to the flaccid story, and handing the actors an unusual amount of character meat to chew on. Towne takes great delight in setting Arturo and Camilla up through a series of events at the café where they engage in a war of humiliation, leading to their unlikely coupling. Farrell and Hayek provide the right sparkle of attraction between the two characters, and they sell the dodgy romance very well, especially when Towne has troubling maintaining clarity during the courtship. Towne aims for steam, and with these two talents, that's not hard to achieve.
After the flirting has subsided, "Dust" starts to rev down and embrace classical melodrama in ways that do not enhance the story. Because the novel's overall arc has been pared down to a more manageable size by Towne, the film lacks the necessary moves to explore the emotional growth for Arturo, who seems to become some kind of grand, compassionate knight in a very short time. The rhythms of Los Angeles are lost in the final act, with Towne caught up in sudsy romantic yearnings, and losing the raw immediacy that made the characters come together. The relationship dissolves into tedium, and "Dust" lumbers to a sludgy climax.
Still, what Towne has here is another rich evocation of a time long forgotten (his specialty), and anytime Farrell and Hayek decide to play up their sexuality, that's cause to dance in the streets. "Ask the Dust" is a deeply flawed film, but it's intoxicating enough to sustain the experience.
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