(R) 3 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell star in 'Ask the Dust'

John Fante's 1939 novel, Ask the Dust, about a struggling writer in Depression-era Los Angeles, has been a hot property in Hollywood for a long time. For screenwriter Robert Towne, who offered his own takes on L.A. in films like Chinatown and Shampoo, turning the book into a film has been a dream for decades.

Finally given the chance to write and direct the big screen adaptation of the noirish book, Towne has crafted a labor of love that is as compelling as it is flawed. What he gets right, he gets very right, and what he gets wrong isn't enough to undermine the project, though it comes close. Ask the Dust offers a beautifully shot look at L.A. in a simpler time, focusing on the volatile relationship between a man and a woman struggling to overcome their outsider status.

The movie is gorgeous - earth tones with an emphasis on burnt umber, vintage streetscapes, shimmering city heat and the cool waves of the ocean. The atmosphere beguiles with a smoky mix of hope and despair, and the emotional melange that accompanies the prospect of great sex just about to happen.

Of course, the picturesque Los Angeles of 1933 that we see is a product of movie magic. The film was shot on sets in South Africa, with computer graphics filling in the rest. It works. Ask the Dust gets the look and feel right. This is a very easy movie to watch, despite the wrong parts.

More about that in a minute. A recap of the story makes it clear why John Fante's semi-autobiographical novel is so slim. After moving to L.A. from Colorado five months earlier to seek his fortune, writer Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) now sits in his Bunker Hill boarding house, scraping through the day on a diet of oranges and cigarettes.

Down to his last nickel, he walks to the nearby Columbia Café, where he meets Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), a sultry waitress. Sparks fly between the two, but are quickly smothered by Arturo's insulting behavior. Thus begins a weird relationship, with sexual heat repeatedly stirred and quashed by fighting.

Along the way, there is a great scene of the couple splashing about naked in the ocean at night. They end up mad at each other there, too, by the way. In the course of all the arguing, we come to realize that Arturo, who was picked on as a kid over his Italian ancestry, and Camilla, who is treated like dirt by many because she's Mexican, have big problems with their self-images. We also realize that Arturo is a virgin likely to remain that way unless he stops acting like such an ass.

That's about it. Vera Rivkin (Idina Menzel), a crazy Jewish lady who also has self-image problems, comes into Arturo's life briefly. Oh, and Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), one of Arturo's boarding house neighbors, pops in occasionally, hoping for a best supporting actor nomination.

The plot is thin because the story is about characters, which is where the movie suffers. Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell give it their all, but the dialogue between their characters is choppy, as if edited from a longer production. You know how many TV series open with a montage of relevant images from previous episodes? That's what many of the scenes between Arturo and Camilla feel like. Fragments that get the information across, but not in a satisfying fashion.

Why a noted screenwriter would present his characters in such a way is beyond me. Even more bizarre is the fact that the problem doesn't sink the movie. Thanks to the appeal of its lead players, along with exceptional visuals, a welcoming atmosphere and a choice score, Ask the Dust manages to go down smooth.


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