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‘Ask the Dust’ is shockingly disappointing

Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek don't create heat in this Robert Towne film
/ Source: The Associated Press

Robert Towne would seem to be the ideal person to bring “Ask the Dust,” John Fante’s novel about an aspiring writer’s dreams and doomed love affairs in 1930s Los Angeles, to the screen.

After all, this is the movie veteran who wrote the Academy Award-winning script of “Chinatown” and the Oscar-nominated script of “Shampoo.” He’s a native who knows the city intimately, its shimmering romanticism and seamy underbelly. He understands its rhythms and disparate inhabitants.

Which is why it’s so baffling that “Ask the Dust” is such a mess. Granted, it’s a well-acted, beautifully photographed mess, with some moments of brilliance and inspiration. But still — a mess.

Towne reportedly had dreamed of making a film of “Ask the Dust” for the past 30 years or so, from the time he discovered the book while working on “Chinatown.” It almost feels as if he was too close to the material — felt too emotionally attached to it — and couldn’t recognize that it was descending into melodrama.

He has a good thing going for a while, though. Serving as both writer and director, Towne starts out with great swagger and evocative detail, as innocent young Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) arrives in town from Colorado with hopes of writing the Great American Novel. (In true noir style, Arturo — Fante’s alter ego on the page — makes us privy to his thoughts and insecurities through frequent, descriptive voiceover.)

The cinematography from five-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel (“The Right Stuff,” The Natural,” “Fly Away Home,” “The Patriot” and “The Passion of the Christ”) is wondrous, as always — all burnished rusts and golds, you can practically feel the hot wind and taste the dust in your mouth.

Arturo finds himself simultaneously fascinated with the place and maddeningly frustrated by it when he walks into the diner near his modest hotel (where Donald Sutherland is fabulously unpredictable as his neighbor) and plunks his last few cents down for a cup of coffee. This sparks the love-hate relationship with saucy waitress Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek) that will shape him as both a writer and a man.

Hayek is completely smoldering in her tight polyester uniform and the open-toed huaraches that give her Mexican heritage away, even as she desperately seeks a WASPy man to take care of her. “Ask the Dust” takes on the same issues of ethnicity, prejudice and shame through the same candid conversations that helped make “Crash” the well-deserved best-picture winner on Oscar night.

Arturo and Camilla are both tired of being judged for their looks, for their last names (in Depression-era L.A., Mexicans and Americans of Italian descent apparently were tantamount and interchangeable on the food chain) and they both want a better life than society will allow. They see that yearning in each other and recognize it as something familiar — and they also know it’s the weapon they can use to inflict the deepest cuts.

They regard one another with mounting cruelty — like something fifth-graders do when they have a crush but lack the maturity to act on it properly — and while their confrontations contain undeniable sparks, they also get a little tedious and repetitive.

But one step in their fledgling romance is a gorgeous scene in which Arturo and Camilla go skinny dipping in the ocean at night, with the moonlight highlighting the curves of their bodies and the waves tossing and pounding them with increasing insistence. The moment is laden with danger, and it’s breathtakingly sexy.

It’s also the closest Arturo has come to intimacy with a woman until he meets Vera Rifkin (Idina Menzel of Broadway’s “Rent” and “Wicked”) — or rather, until she thrusts herself into his life. A nice Jewish girl who works as a housekeeper in Long Beach, Vera turns volatile with drunk, but is generous enough to show him what it’s like to be with a woman, even though he’d rather be with someone else. Menzel practically trembles with vulnerability; it makes you want to see her in films more often.

After starting out in such rich, visceral fashion, though, “Ask the Dust” goes weirdly soft and conventional. Once they succumb to their feelings and settle into a comfy life together, all the life goes out of the film. (Their makeshift English lessons, in which Camilla learns to read with the help of a children’s book, are especially clunky.)

And the absolute ending is a piece of maudlin schlock you could see in any shamelessly heart-tugging weeper — and you already have, over and over.