John Fante's Superior Novel Leaves Film in the 'Dust'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2006

"Ask the Dust" is one of the most eagerly awaited movies this season, which makes it all the more disappointing. On paper, the project looked bulletproof: Robert Towne, the screenwriter who brought Depression-era Los Angeles to such vivid life in his script for "Chinatown," bringing to the screen John Fante's 1939 novel of the same name, a book that, although largely unknown, has enjoyed its own cult following for Fante's depiction of L.A.'s seedier downtown precincts during the 1930s.

The child of an Italian immigrant family and a writer who was championed as a young man by H.L. Mencken, Fante wrote "Ask the Dust" as part of a loosely autobiographical trilogy that in highly mannered, sometimes florid prose dealt with the immigrant experience, sexual longing, Catholicism and the American Dream. (Think of an Italian American version of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, and you get the idea.) His literary alter ego, Arturo Bandini, was his most enduring and complicated creation, a young man on the make who bristled as much with hubris and hostility as he did with artistic ambition.

Towne has cast Colin Farrell as Bandini in "Ask the Dust," and that's at least one insurmountable problem. In recent years, Farrell has become something of a Hollywood "It" boy whose partying and sexual exploits seem to be so much smoke and mirrors distracting from increasingly vapid performances. As "Ask the Dust" opens, Bandini -- whom readers first met as a fiery, impulsive young boy in "Wait Until Spring, Bandini" -- has moved from Colorado to Los Angeles, where he hopes to make it big as a writer (he's already had one story published, in a fictionalized version of Mencken's American Mercury magazine).

Smoldering with ambition and sexual frustration (for the artist as a young man is most emphatically, and mortifiedly, a virgin), Bandini is down to his last dime when he buys a cup of coffee at a downtown cafe and meets Camilla (Salma Hayek), a Mexican waitress who in synopses and reviews will inevitably be described as "fiery." Striking her most attractively impetuous poses, Hayek does nothing to dispel this noxious stereotype. In one scene -- which, to be fair, is lifted almost verbatim from the book -- she rips up one of Bandini's stories, dumps the tatters into a spittoon, stomps her foot and tosses her head; the only thing missing is an "Ole!" and a rose in her teeth.

"Ask the Dust" is full of such visual billboards in what turns out to be an episodic recounting of Bandini and Camilla's story with all of Fante's odd mixture of lyricism and toughness leached out. The result is a romantic melodrama told very prettily and clearly with deep respect and affection on Towne's part, but without an ounce of Fante's wit or muscularity. The most glaring problem is Farrell's Bandini, who is portrayed much too sympathetically by the actor; the trick would have been to be able to convey Bandini's cruelty and remorseless avidity without making him unwatchable. (Tony Curtis managed to thread that needle as the depraved press agent Sidney Falco in "Sweet Smell of Success.")

Instead, Farrell -- and, by extension, Towne -- opt for being liked, which might make for a studio-friendly star vehicle but doesn't do justice to either Fante or the audience. (Even stranger than Farrell's inept performance is the story's third character, Los Angeles itself, which isn't re-created with nearly the detail or depth it deserves.) "Ask the Dust" may steer some curious viewers to the original book, and that would be a boon. But what they will find is a novel that was meant to stay on the page.

Ask the Dust (117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for some sexuality, nudity and profanity.

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