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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ASK THE DUST -- movie review by porfle

When I found out that ASK THE DUST (2006) was a 30s-era story directed by Robert Towne and adapted by him from John Fante's novel, I was looking forward to another experience similar to Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN, which Towne wrote. But this is much different--it's one of those stories that writers like to write about writers writing stories.

The writer in this case is Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell of MINORITY REPORT and the upcoming MIAMI VICE), who has come to sunny Los Angeles to sit behind a clackety typewriter in his slummy apartment and soak up enough inspiration to compose short stories worthy of being printed in "the greatest magazine in the world", The American Mercury, by his hero H.L. Mencken.

He's also there to find love, sweet love amongst the gaggles of blonde sirens who seem to grow on trees in LA, like oranges. Trouble is, he can't seem to find one who cares to marry anyone named "Arturo Bandini."

When he goes into a cafe' to spend his last nickel on a cup of coffee, he meets and is immediately attracted to the waitress, Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, DESPERADO). Like Arturo, Camilla yearns to marry a W.A.S.P. in order to better fit into a society that generally takes a dim view of foreigners, and the last thing either of them wants is to fall for each other.

Which happens, of course, and the stormy relationship which follows is laced with mutual hostility. But at least it gives Arturo something to write about besides his own melodramatic fantasies, and Mencken starts buying his stories.

ASK THE DUST benefits from a good cast--I've always liked Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, who try their best here to bring life to their sometimes unrealistic characters. Idina Menzel (RENT) is great as Vera Rivkin, a woman who becomes obsessed with Arturo after hearing him talking about Sinclair Lewis in a bar one night and blousily barges into his life, eventually becoming an oasis of unconditional love and adoration for him to retreat to.

And Donald Sutherland, who seems to be sliding nicely into old-age character roles (when he first pokes his head through Arturo's door, I thought, "Denver Pyle's in this?"), is wonderful in a small role as the perpetually-gassed neighbor who serves as an example of how Arturo doesn't want to end up.

The film itself is rich in period detail and beautifully photographed by Caleb Deschanel (THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, THE NATURAL), but it rarely gets past the stagey feel of a writer writing about writing. Much of what takes place seems as though it could've come hot off Arturo's own typewriter during his early melodramatic phase--there's even an earthquake which serves as a deus ex machina in resolving one of the major plotlines in a perfunctory way.

The sequence in which Arturo rents an isolated beach house where he and Camilla can leave their differences behind and allow themselves to grow more intimate while he helps her study for her American citizenship test is nice, but eventually their tiresome bickering returns to wreck everything again.

Worse of all, just as their love is growing stronger, Camilla develops "the cough." You know, the one that's really something even though she insists "it's nothing", just like the one Ali McGraw had in LOVE STORY. I wanted to see this particular story work itself out in a more interesting way, but when "the cough" appeared, I pretty much knew what was coming.

Even so, the ending is nicely done and generates some emotion. The most cathartic moment for me comes when Arturo regretfully admits to Camilla that his often mean-spirited attitude toward her is a reflection of the bigotry he endured while growing up--treating her that way made him feel less like an outsider himself.

After that I was finally able to sympathize with his character, which up until then seemed like a basically nice guy who, for no apparent reason, often acted like an arrogant jerk.

As good as it is, though, and ASK THE DUST is a pretty good movie, I was never able to get past its superficial veneer and settle into it. But H.L. Mencken ends up buying Arturo's autobiographical account of the story, so what do I know?

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