If Salma Hayek's got a thing for penniless, arrogant writers, she should send Judge Brendan Babish an e-mail.
Arturo Bandini, lover of man and beast alike, and afraid of nothing!
John Fante was a novelist whose work—largely written in the 1930s and '40s—remained obscure and out of print until fellow writer Charles Bukowski began championing it in the early 1980s. Most of Fante's stories were set in 1930s Los Angeles and often featured characters from the poor and immigrant classes. Ask the Dust—a semi-autobiographical novel originally published in 1939—is widely considered to be Fante's most popular work.
Bringing Ask the Dust to the screen was a labor of love for writer-director Robert Towne (an Oscar winner for the screenplay of Chinatown). He adapted the novel into a screenplay in the early 1990s and began searching for financial backing. At different times Johnny Depp and Val Kilmer were attached to the project, but by the time a budget was finally secured Colin Farrell (The New World) had agreed to play the lead, with Salma Hayek (After the Sunset) signing on as his love interest.
Facts of the Case
Ask the Dust is set in 1930s Los Angeles. Arturo Bandini (Farrell) is a young writer who has just arrived in L.A. by way of Colorado. Brimming with confidence upon arrival, Bandini quickly develops a debilitating case of writer's block. With no money, no friends, and no prospects, he heads into a local restaurant and spends his last nickel on a cup of coffee. That coffee is served to him by the beautiful Camilla (Hayek), a feisty Mexican waitress. Arturo and Camilla enjoy a mutual attraction, but both express their interest in acts of hostility. Each pretends to detest the other, and Arturo, penniless, avoids Camilla's restaurant.
However, not long after their meeting Arturo's writing career begins to blossom, and he finally has the money to woo Camilla properly. But despite their deep affection for the other, they both have self-doubts that threaten to destroy their budding relationship.
One of the most difficult tricks to pull off on film is the depiction of two people falling in love. In real life falling in love is often a lengthy process. Depicting a truncated version in a two-hour movie presents a challenge. Many films will merely stick two attractive people in a room together and, after an amusing five- to ten-minute conversation, proceed as if this were enough foundation for a committed relationship. Sometimes—as in Clarence and Alabama's whirlwind courtship in True Romance—this works. Usually, it doesn't. Still, in most movies, the dodgy romance merely facilitates a larger plot (such as last year's The Constant Gardener) and can be overlooked. Ask the Dust is a film whose plot consists almost entirely of a man and woman falling in love. Watching it is a highly frustrating experience.
The movie begins with Arturo arriving in Los Angeles. He sits in his humid, mangy apartment and struggles to write. The first 15 minutes of Ask the Dust will remind many viewers of Barton Fink, a far superior Coen Brothers film. Barton Fink is also set in the 1930s and also depicts a neophyte writer struggling to write in dingy surroundings. Like Barton Fink, Ask the Dust also features an eccentric neighbor (played here by a hirsute Donald Sutherland). Of course, the novel Ask the Dust long preceded Barton Fink, so this movie is not necessarily emulating the Coen Brothers film (if anything, the reverse is true). However, Barton Fink had a stronger lead (John Turturro) and an intriguing absurdity that is completely absent from Ask the Dust. Barton Fink is one of my favorite films from the 1990s, and I think any fellow admirers won't help but notice the similarities between the films. Clearly, Ask the Dust suffers in comparison.
Still, the two films clearly diverge once Arturo meets Clarissa. In their initial encounter Arturo is shockingly rude and intentionally spills a cup of coffee over his table to make extra work for Clarissa. Now consider: Salma Hayek is one of the most beautiful women on the planet. In Ask the Dust we are supposed to believe that she is going to fall for an arrogant, penniless customer whose appallingly bad behavior is neither playful nor humorous. It would take a thespian of immense talent and likeability to convince us that beyond Arturo's penury and spitefulness is something that makes Clarissa fall in love. Colin Farrell is not that actor.
I have never understood Colin Farrell's popularity. He's never had a breakthrough hit, he has starred in several mediocre films, and his career seems to be fueled largely by his regular, mostly unflattering, appearances in US Weekly. I am not saying he doesn't have talent. His performances in Tigerland and Daredevil prove he can play arrogant and troubled characters with ease. Yet he is wildly miscast in Ask the Dust. Arturo is an introspective, cerebral character, entirely unsuited for Farrell's natural hunky, loutish demeanor. Additionally, Farrell employs an odd, brusque American accent that seems more appropriate for an old-fashioned private eye than a struggling writer.
Farrell's struggles only amplify the contrivance of Arturo and Clarissa's relationship. The two spend a great amount of time together, but their conversations lack substance or humor. When they inevitably declare their love for each other we are supposed to be moved by their commitment and passion. Instead the moment comes off as overwrought and manipulative. Their relationship so dominates the film that if you are not emotionally invested in it, the entire movie rings hollow.
Ask the Dust received a very subdued theatrical release, and Paramount expends only slightly more effort in this DVD. There is a commentary track with Robert Towne and his cinematographer, but my guess is that this was at the request of Towne, not the studio. Towne is a Hollywood veteran, and he offers several worthwhile insights into filmmaking and writing in his commentary track, so it is unfortunate that so many of his comments are related to this mediocre production.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the movie's few saving graces is a successful re-creation of 1930s Los Angeles (on a South African set), and the picture on this DVD presents the locations in bright and clear images. The commendable set design is so well done it may even distract you from the film's staid action.
Salma Hayek appears nude on two separate occasions. One scene, in which she skinny dips in the ocean, is quite explicit. These parts of the movie I enjoyed.
Ask the Dust barely grossed $1 million at the U.S. box office. Now, I know many great films have performed poorly in theaters, so I don't want to put too much stock in ticket sales. That said, I am not surprised Ask the Dust so thoroughly failed to draw an audience. It's a period piece with little to offer beyond a nondescript romance. While the film is far from offensively bad, it is dull and eminently forgettable.
Judge Brendan Babish finds Ask the Dust guilty of presenting an inscrutable romance with little passion, no humor, and an emotionally manipulative ending that the script hasn't earned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director and Cinematographer
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