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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
A City in a State of Mind
by Donald Levit

Death’s kindly holding off to await a melodramatic last-second arrival and croaked words of import, is a staple. The desert and time’s collapsing a wooden shack and cross but leaving erect a flimsy wood windmill, is poetic license. And an unrealistic feel-good wrap-up is not warming enough to overcome too many other lapses in Ask the Dust.

Robert Towne directs from his own script, in this work which took three decades to bring to fruition from the “masterpiece” homonymous second of John Fante’s four novels about his own writer-alter ego, Arturo Bandini. A would-be Hemingway-Chandler-Hammett of L.A. hardboiled, the short-story writer and novelist was rescued into print and coterie acclaim three years before his death, in 1983, by West Coast cult author Charles Bukowski.

More known as a screenwriter himself, and occasional script doctor, Towne’s teenage discovery of the book, and obsession with it, centered at least equally on its rendering of Los Angeles in the ‘30s, “just before my own awareness of it,” as on the pair of star-cross’d “Wuthering Heights in Bunker Hill” protagonists. However, it is the third, the (re-created in South Africa) City of Angels as presence, that is front and center, and the filmmaker ought to have known better. Too many unfavorable comparisons rush to mind, from his own Oscar-winning script for Chinatown on through any original or redone Raymond Chandler or, Northern California noir, Dashiell Hammett -- whose The Big Sleep appeared the same year, 1939, as Ask the Dust -- and even German Wim Wenders’ stylized Hammett (reputedly largely reshot by executive producer Francis Ford Coppola).

Unsubtly, the still small townish Depression-era city is rubbed in our noses, even to a convenient actual 1933 earthquake (belied by a 1937 buffalo nickel), in voice-over after voice-over after voice-over of Bandini (Colin Farrell) pretty blandly reading his own writing and occasional letters from his famous American Mercury editor. Much better are the very few instances where, say, Vera Rifkin (Idina Menzel) or the writer as character actually reads from his manuscripts within the film-story situation. Enough already, of L.A. as brain-dried, sun-baked losers who have fled from elsewhere to this meretricious Promised Land, only to see dreams and souls shrivel on Pacific shores where, wrote “Native Daughter” Joan Didion, “we run out of continent.”

Whereas good noir dialogue has a biting, sardonic edge, here the self-conscious literary-ness falls flat and foolish. Farrell’s woman-shy, discriminated-against Italian, aspiring writer from Colorado is a little boy out of his element; grandfatherly neighbor Hellfrick is done in by a Donald Sutherland who smirks around without bothering to convince with his “Kid” and tremens; consumptive bartender-writer Sammy (Justin Kirk) repeats his cynical lines uncynically; and, too pretty to be discounted out of hand by any male, racist or not, Veracruz’ Salma Hayek’s accent sounds un-Mexican as illiterate Camilla López and soon all but disappears altogether, to such a point that she is capable of a sophisticated distinction beyond the writer, “grow on” as against “grow in.”

Flat, broke and alternating between confidence and despair despite cheques and encouragement from the great Mencken, freshly arrived Bandini meets fiery waitress Camilla. As they say, sparks fly -- to the predictable outcome -- along with tame racial and ethnic insults that will later be explained away, anyway, but are intended to reflect time and place. The movie supposedly intensifies the novel’s incipient racial tensions, but though Japanese kids play on a Laguna beach and landlady Hargraves (Eileen Atkins) does not permit blacks or Hispanics (or lady visitors), racism doesn’t feel to be in the air. Yes, he resents the youthful taunts of Smiths, Parkers and Joneses, and she wants to marry Anglo -- Sammy’s significant surname is White, and in the novel he is more her love interest than Bandini -- and she wears guaraches on her feet, carnations in her hair, smokes the occasional marijuana, and is upset by a blonde’s stares, but they will manage just fine in her car and his rented beach bungalow. “Fine,” that is, once Jewish Vera, scarred in Long Beach and “deformed, discarded and disgusting,” teaches him that love lies deeper than surfaces, so that Italian-American and Mexican can love and he can write.

Hammy in plot and acting, but without irony or fun aside from old-time turning book-page credits, Ask the Dust takes itself seriously but fails to bring its city to life, to invoke the racism it would address, or to convince us that its lovers are worth the attention. Angelenos should be mildly amused by it, or insulted; everyone else should stand warned. 

(Released by Paramount Classics and rated “R” for some sexuality, nudity and language.)

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