½*/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland, Eileen Atkins
screenplay by Robert Towne, based on the novel by John Fante
directed by Robert Towne
by Walter Chaw As a male of the average chauvinist-pig variety, you find yourself inclined to give Robert Towne's Ask the Dust the benefit of the doubt because he's convinced Salma Hayek to strip naked a few times and roll around in the surf. And yet the realization dawns inescapable that no matter the acres of flesh, the film is every bit as horrible as that self-serious, neo-camp sexploitation classic Original Sin (another noir based on a lesser-known, period-dependent novel--that one by Cornell Woolrich, this one by John Fante), with only the gender/race roles reversed--that watching naked Angelina Jolie writhe around with Antonio Banderas can be every bit as disturbingly sexless as Hayek and Colin Farrell doing same. Promising to follow the James M. Cain pot-boiler formula with its dense voiceovers and faux-sordid, sepia-stained sexing, Ask the Dust is actually just inert, a painfully-overwritten, impossible-to-execute picture loaded down with self-conscious slatted shadows and mirrors (and all manner of noir affectations) that isn't only set in 1930s Los Angeles, but plays exactly as anachronistic and fusty as most films produced in the Thirties, too. It's the kind of movie that makes much of a character's English-impaired malapropisms ("Not 'grew on me,' grew in me...like a baby," mewls Hayek's character in one of many excruciating proclamations); to its core, it's the kind of movie that sucks now and always has in exactly the same way.
The first problem is that it's not about anything. It's not about Los Angeles in the '30s because the suffering of the starving writer (Arturo Bandini (Farrell)), marooned in a Barton Fink hotel oubliette, is antiseptic. Starvation is something scored to a whimsical Spanish guitar and neatly solved by squandered drunken weirdo Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland) borrowing two bits at one point and returning fifteen cents in another, while Arturo's imminent eviction is mentioned in passing and then forgotten for a long stretch in-between. It's not about racism because although there's a lot of it going around in the picture (and in spite of much protestations as to its importance), it doesn't seem to colour the characters or their relationships in any meaningful way. It's not about writer's block because H.L. Mencken, in voiceover (provided by Richard Schickel, which is, indeed, your first warning), appears to buy Bandini's scribblings without much editorial insight. And it's not about love, because the actions and dialogue the erstwhile lovers share (an exchange about Camilla's (Hayek) shoes seals the deal: "Why, because they're too good for my legs?" "No, because your legs are too good for them!") are all alien and, almost without exception, unintentionally hilarious. It's so bad in a dedicated way that for much of its running time, Ask the Dust threatens to become an accidental satire of hardboiled L.A. noir epics with its gallery of grotesques anchored by a dickless, wholly unsympathetic ponce.
Farrell is, as usual, simultaneously fine and invisible (a quality that complements Malick's transcendentalism, if nothing else), and I've never thought much of Hayek as an actress save for that one bit with her toes in Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn, but whatever's wrong with the picture isn't the fault of its players. I will say that to its credit and for what it's worth, Ask the Dust is so certain about itself that it never ventures from its absurd approach into self-awareness, to say nothing of the kind of fully-justified self-loathing that might have salvaged Towne's already-foundering reputation. Set around the time of Towne's own seminal Chinatown script, it shares with it only that ironclad devotion to its style and sprung rhythms. In all other respects, it could be positioned as the exact contrary to it in terms of agility and gravity: the one the perfect modern screenplay, the other a weird riff on that screenplay with a chip on its shoulder and trying too damned hard--Herman vs. Joseph Mankiewicz, for instance, or the old Robert Towne versus the Tom Cruise-ified middlebrow edition. Ask the Dust is dreadful stuff, as stale, deluded, and sad as the cot in an old man's flophouse cubicle. Originally published: March 17, 2006.
by Bill Chambers Paramount brings Ask the Dust to DVD in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The piece has been transferred with care, never looking worse than you'd expect it to look; it's impeccable, actually, and it occurs to me that despite HD being poised to take over, the qualitative gap between it and standard definition ain't what it used to be. Atmospherically impressive during street scenes, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is subdued yet crisp, though when all's said and done, Towne seems fearful of drawing too much attention to the sound (see: the Sensurround-lite earthquake set-piece), lest it undermine the film's austerity. On another track, Towne and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel largely expand on comments made in the attendant Light Source & Imagery EPK, "The Making of Ask the Dust" (13 mins.).