Film-Forward Review: [ASK THE DUST]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Directed & Written by: Robert Towne, based on the novel by John Fante.
Produced by: Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Don Granger & Jonas McCord.
Director of Photography: Caleb Deschanel.
Edited by: Robert K. Lambert.
Music by: Ramin Djawadi & Heitor Pereira.
Released by: Paramount Classics.
Country of Origin: USA. 117 min. Rated: R.
With: Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Justin Kirk, Donald Sutherland, Tamara Craig Thomas, Eileen Atkins & Idina Menzel.

The Los Angeles of the Depression is as grim as any town in the poverty-stricken Dustbowl states, and Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) never once sees the city of dreams he had anticipated upon arrival. Barely making end’s meet as a writer in a $4-a-week hotel room in a part of town where “old women and weak men go to die,” Arturo, an Italian-American and a hopeless virgin, finds his reason for living in Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), a Mexican waitress at a nearby bar, even though she admits she would prefer to marry a man with a surname like Smith or Johnson than Bandini.

Adapted by renowned writer/director Robert Towne (Chinatown) from the beloved novel by John Fante, there must have been some drastic pre-production missteps to have resulted in such a poor film. Fante’s impoverished City of Angels, full of misery and sand grit, and indeed the same vision that the film’s characters vocalize, is a stark contrast to the nostalgic wonderland that Towne (Chinatown) shows us. And as the central figure, Bandini is a remarkably plucky character for all his moaning about his luckless existence. (It doesn’t help matters that Colin Farrell is worse at acting like a jittery virgin than I am at acting like Colin Farrell).

The acting can take a large chunk of the blame, too. The film features an array of fabulous actors, but none of them are the leads. Broadway actress Idina Menzel is a revelation as a ruined Jewish intellectual burn victim, as is Donald Sutherland, though he’s wasted on a character that seems to have been included in the adaptation to preserve some sense of tragic poverty. His role is relegated to his confession that he sleeps with the milkman in exchange for, well, milk.

However, the set design and photography are beautiful. But that’s it. Racism, a complicated topic of the book and apparently the focal point of this movie, is reduced to terms that even the screenwriters of Crash would roll their eyes at. The worst part of the film, though, is the melodramatic finale. Even writer Charles Bukowski, who cites Ask the Dust as his favorite novel, refers to the book’s ending as hokey, but its ridiculousness is multiplied in the film. I won’t spoil it for you, but I imagine you know what it means when a character starts coughing a half-hour into a two-hour period piece. Yeah, it’s bad. Zachary Jones
March 10, 2006



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