As a writer, Robert Towne skilfully dissected the dark heart of Los Angeles in Chinatown (1974). As the writer and director of Ask The Dust he returns to similar territory, except this time the period film noir sensibility is just sexy dressing up for an emotionally barren melodrama. Salma Hayek provides the only spark of life in this yarn while Colin Farrell is little more than a cardboard cutout of an Italian/American writer who yearns for mainstream acceptance.
He is simply miscast as the virginal Arturo Bandini who shrinks when confronted with Hayek's ripe sexuality. Mostly though, the relationship is hindered by their flawed notions of 'The American Dream'. As a Mexican immigrant, Camilla's heart is set on a white-bred husband and fancy high-heeled shoes to ease her passage into the culture of 30s California. Bandini views success as a blue-eyed blonde on his arm. Unfortunately, even with a slick voiceover, his erratic behaviour (flirting then picking fights) just feels silly and increasingly tiresome.
"DIPS TO THE POINT OF INERTIA"
Whatever unfolds in Bandini's mind just doesn't translate to the screen so the essence of John Fante's novel is lost. Towne can only evoke the insidious allure of LA with honey-dipped visuals and stark contrasts like orange peel mingling with cigarette ash. But without a compelling lead, the smouldering languor dips to the point of inertia. It doesn't help that the action is largely stage-bound. Except for an opening image of LA (which reeks of CGI), there's little sense of an intimidating urban sprawl. Like the desert beyond, the film is arid and airless.