LOVERS of Los Angeles literature and especially the works of John Fante have long anticipated the arrival of the movie version of "Ask the Dust." That it was entrusted to Robert Towne, of "Chinatown" fame and keeper of a tradition of Southern California writers, has been a source of comfort and high hopes.
Thirty years of gestation have produced a film of great beauty with unfulfilled promise -- a disappointment, but with much to recommend and be glad about. It is a reverent treatment of the touchstone novel about tyro writer Arturo Bandini and his adventures in the City of Angels that perhaps clings too closely to the original while neglecting the intricacies of its main character.
Colin Farrell stars as the Italian American Bandini, five months removed from Boulder, Colo., and full of youthful bravado. Emboldened by the publication of a short story in a literary magazine, he is inspired and discouraged by his surroundings. The tragic faces of the Midwesterners who've come to L.A. seeking sun-drenched asylum and peaceful death haunt him even as he finds insight in their plight. The bright, corrosive daylight of each new morning drives him into the cover of darkness to stare at his typewriter collecting dust blown in from the distant Mojave Desert.
Towne acknowledges his literary debt up front, panning from a pile of rotting orange peels that share a dish with cigarette ashes to a book that displays the film's opening credits on its turning pages. The painted postcard look of the next shot, downtown Los Angeles at night, establishes the film in the fabulist tradition. The camera swoops from high above Chinatown down to Bunker Hill and the sad denizens of the Alta Loma Hotel.
The film's attitude echoes the doomed romanticism of 1930s melodramas. There's a warmth at the center of its images, courtesy of director of photography Caleb Deschanel and production designer Dennis Gassner, that suggests a longing for the simplicity of the prewar era, the time when orange-crate boosterism met noir cynicism. Where "Chinatown" was all skepticism and corrupted dreams, "Ask the Dust" holds something back for the future.
Bandini is shaken to life by his tumultuous encounter with the enchanting Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez, played with intense passion by Salma Hayek. Down to his last nickel, he visits the cafe where she works, and they immediately begin pushing away from one another like strong magnets. Taunted by the Smiths and Joneses back home, Bandini proudly holds onto his name and all its vowels even as he fantasizes about creamy skinned WASP girls. Camilla doesn't fit his dream and, though drawn to her, he repels her with the same slurs that were hurled at him.
Likewise, Camilla imagines marrying an Anglo and shedding her surname, pointing out that Bandini isn't much of an improvement. The complexities and contradictions in their behavior make more sense in the novel, drawn from the acidic mix of pride and self-loathing.
In the film, the reversals feel more abrupt, less clearly motivated. The relationship thus conveys less about the characters and obscures the larger issues of their clashing identities.
The character of Bandini is a difficult one. A callow mixture of bluster and uncertainty, he writes to his editor, H.L. Mencken (voiced by film critic and historian Richard Schickel) -- J.C. Hackmuth in the book -- that he can't write about love when he has so little experience. The problem with the casting of Farrell, who is otherwise very good, is that he is nearly a decade too old.
Moving the romance front and center also diminishes the role the city plays in Bandini's journey, which is unfortunate because Towne and his crew pull off an amazing cinematic sleight of hand. The film, remarkably, was shot in Capetown, South Africa, where sets representing Depression-era downtown Los Angeles were erected. Specific locales such as Bunker Hill, the Angel's Flight funicular and the Third Street tunnel are strikingly imagined.
There are also good performances to appreciate among the supporting actors, including Donald Sutherland ("Day of the Locust's " Homer Simpson), evoking the even darker vision of Nathanael West as Bandini's neighbor and Idina Menzel ("Wicked") as the ill-fated inspiration for Bandini's novel.
It's unlikely anyone other than Towne could have gotten the film made, and we'll have to be satisfied with the pleasures of his version rather than thoughts of what might have been. One thing that persists from Fante's novel is the idea of what sets Bandini apart from those who come to Los Angeles to discover their fortune or be discovered themselves. Bandini, as a writer, creates his own destiny and tragic as the outcome may be, he fulfills it.
`Ask the Dust'
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality, nudity and language
A Paramount Classics release. Director Robert Towne. Producers Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Don Granger, Jonas McCord. Screenplay by Robert Towne, based on the novel by John Fante. Director of photography Caleb Deschanel. Editor Robert K. Lambert. Production designer Dennis Gassner. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
In selected theaters.