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Ask The Dust

Choke!
Robert Towne Bites The Dust
By Cole Smithey

Writer/director Robert Towne ("Personal Best") mucks up John Fante’s 1939 classic Depression-era novel about Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) a naive writer making his way through real and imagined traps of sunny Los Angeles. Nonstop voice-over narration clogs up Towne’s misguided rewrite that reverses the novel’s narrative significance by making Camilla (Selma Hayek) amenable to Bandini’s profoundly unromantic overtures. Colin Farrell is too self-consciously cute for the part, and Selma Hayek overstresses her character’s problematic passion for a man who insults her as much as he impotently lusts after her. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel gives the film a slightly desaturated look that perfectly represents Los Angeles in the ‘30s, although the film was shot in South Africa. The ever-brilliant Donald Sutherland is squandered in a trivial supporting role as one of Bandini’s rooming house neighbors.

"Ask The Dust" has reportedly been Robert Towne’s pet project for many years. Towne’s Oscar-nominated screenwriting successes ("The Last Detail," "Shampoo" and "Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan") and his Oscar win for "Chinatown" have led to a healthy career writing Hollywood blockbusters like the "Mission Impossible" movies. It’s through his association with the production team of Cruise/Wagner that Towne is finally able to bring his labor of love to fruition even if it comes off as far more labored than lovable.

The story is about a writer struggling to find his own literary voice while seeking life experiences that will provide him a right to passage from boy to man. Bandini is at turns cleverly suave before turning cruel in his attentions toward members of the opposite sex. The character is riddled with a deep-seeded inner turmoil that the brawny and over-confident Colin Farrell is ill equipped to delve into beyond the surface demands of the role. For her part, Selma Hayek has a much stronger grasp of Camilla’s latent S&M desires that reflect her tentative existence as a restless brand of immigrant refugee. Still, when pressed by the artificial narrative demands of the script’s problematic third act Hayek contributes just as heartily as Farrell does to the film’s dramatic demise. No one gets away unscathed in Robert Towne’s overblown attempt at transfiguring John Fante’s novel to film.

Rated R, 117 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)

April 9, 2006 in Drama | Permalink