In need of a Dust buster
Review: Ask the Dust
Here's how Hollywood works: Write a screenplay like Chinatown and you can do whatever you want for the rest of your career, whether it's writing scripts for Tom Cruise ( Days of Thunder, M:I I & II) or writing and directing a lesbian love story ( Personal Best). And nothing else you do will ever be as good.
|I don't do bad movies... did you see Alexander or The New World?|
Robert Towne may have maxed out his carte blanche with Ask the Dust, his fourth feature as director. Based on a novel by John Fante, it could be a sequel to 1989's Wait Until Spring, Bandini, which was about the same protagonist a decade or so earlier.
In the words of Stephen Sondheim, "In the Depression was I depressed?" That's the setting and mood of this story, with Caleb Deschanel shooting interiors through filters that make them look either golden or rusty, I'm not sure which.
It's about a wannabe writer, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), coming to Los Angeles in search of "fortune, fame, good health and glamorous women," and finding his muse; but there's a disturbing motif that feels like nostalgia for the good old days of institutionalized racism.
Growing up in Colorado , Bandini was taunted and beaten over his Italian roots. In Los Angeles his landlady (Eileen Atkins, who vanishes after establishing an interesting character) tells him, perhaps as a selling point, she doesn't rent to Jews or Mexicans.
The rest of the movie is about Bandini's affairs with a Jew and a Mexican. The Jew, Vera Rivkin (Idina Menzel of Broadway's "Wicked") is his first groupie, practically a stalker. His relationship with her hardly goes beyond a pity screw, after she shows him the secret she's hiding under her dress. (No, she's not Felicity Huffman.)
Bandini meets Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), who sometimes Americanizes her name to Lombard , when he goes to spend his last nickel on a cup of coffee (this was long before Starbuck's). He's having trouble writing because he's "ignorant of women and life and afraid of both."
Camilla's the waitress with whom he immediately strikes up an antagonistic acquaintance that goes beyond what's necessary for a "meet cute." Soon he's calling her a "spic" and she's calling him a "dago," not quite as terms of endearment. He acts like a jerk, somewhat like Brendan Sexton III in Welcome to the Dollhouse, who had the excuse of being an adolescent at the time; and she responds in kind.
As things heat up between them, Bandini keeps asking what's between Camilla and the bartender, Sammy White (Justin Kirk of Angels in America), until she asks, "Who are you interested in, me or Sammy?" She alternates between trying on "Camilla Bandini" for size and chastising him for being ashamed to be seen with her in public.
Sammy leaves town because he has tuberculosis and before you can say, "Isn't Camilla Spanish for Camille?" she lets out a telltale cough. TB or not TB? It's not even a question.
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, who do the best they can with bad writing about a bad writer. Farrell makes as believable an American as Hayek does a Mexican. Both display their charms in a moonlit skinny-dipping scene and Farrell has a few extra butt shots, for those who care about nothing else when choosing their entertainment.
The final line of the movie, and presumably of the novel Bandini has written by then, is, "I am ashamed of the terrible things I have done." If that's Towne's apology it's not accepted. Ask the Dust is the kind of picture that makes critics want to take a vacation from January until October, when they start releasing good movies again.
Steve Warren is a local actor and film reviewer. His reviews can also be seen weekly in the Sunday Paper.