It’s difficult to resist a project as wildly unfashionable as Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust—particularly since the man who wrote Chinatown and Shampoo has been plotting his labor-of-love adaptation of the 1939 novel by John Fante for three decades. Difficult, even painful: but, alas, not impossible. Fante (1909–83) is a writer of no small interest to students of Los Angeles literary regionalism. Charles Bukowski considered him his “god,” and indeed, Towne helped jump-start the Fante revival, having discovered (and optioned) Ask the Dust while researching Chinatown. Mentored by H.L. Mencken and burdened by his own ethnic baggage, Fante infused his early writings with a fierce sense of social inferiority; his self-disgust was only enhanced by his subsequent Hollywood career. (In addition to Orson Welles’s unfinished It’s All True, Fante’s credits include Jeanne Eagels and Walk on the Wild Side.)
Ambitious pulp, taking its title and something of its plot from Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun’s Pan, Ask the Dust is a quasi-autobiographical bildungsroman. Fante’s surrogate, the young and virginal would-be writer Arturo Bandini, arrives in California from Colorado having published a single story in, as the movie makes clear, Mencken’s American Mercury. Installed in a shabby rooming house and hungry for experience, Bandini finds it in the course of a miserable erotic fixation with the illiterate, sexually provocative waitress Camilla Lopez. (Theirs is a memorably disagreeable meet-cute: He insults her worn huaraches, she wishes him heart failure, he dumps a half-cup of coffee on her table.)
Fueled by shame and prejudice, the doomed relationship of these two proud self-haters is more drunken knife fight than transcendent love affair. The derelict feel is heightened by the back-alley milieu. Ask the Dust is set in the colorful Depression-era demimonde of Los Angeles’s since demolished Bunker Hill. (The elaborate, part-CGI set, complete with Angel’s Flight funicular railway, is a Pyrrhic victory—this triumph of design adds to the stilted, airless feel.) Albeit emphasizing the period’s pervasive anti-Mexican prejudice, Towne must contend with the problem of Fante’s vividly unlikable characters. His solution is a good scrubbing and relocation to some disinfected Holiday Inn of the mind. Ultimately, Ask the Dust has been less adapted than gentrified; a saga of masochistic torment transformed into a sentimental love story. According to the press notes, Towne’s hopeful sell line is “ Wuthering Heights in Bunker Hill.”
Alternately grandiose and abject, Bandini is a sort of underground man, and if no more miscast than usual, heartthrob Colin Farrell miserably fails to convincingly render Bandini’s neurosis. Introduced to the viewer tit first, Salma Hayek makes the volatile Camilla work up to a point. (Having donated her services to this worthy project, she’s not about to pull the savagely deglamorizing stunt Penelope Cruz used to power the tawdry Don’t Move.) Donald Sutherland periodically pops into Farrell’s room as the garrulous drunk who lives down the hall. His aren’t the only scenes that play as though they were written out of a bottle. In a concession to popular taste, Towne supplies a romantic idyll that barely exists in the novel, complete with puppy and Camilla coughing up blood.
Ask the Dust means to be all about writing and it is, if not in the way Towne intended. Even the voice of Mencken is heard (courtesy of insider critic Richard Schickel). Among the mossy morals that might be derived from Ask the Dust is the Wildean truism that each man kills the thing he loves. Towne not only dramatizes the point but demonstrates it.