Ask the Dust (Paramount Classics, R)

Ask the Dust is a perfectly functional little movie, [but] the remote possibility that it could have been another Chinatown is glaring to the point that it is hard to enjoy.

 

If you recognize director Robert Towne’s name, it is probably because of Chinatown. Towne has been in the film industry for just shy of five decades now, and has seen moderate success in the process (he wrote and directed 1988’s Tequila Sunrise and 1998’s Without Limits, among others), but he has never been able to match the success of his one masterpiece, the screenplay for Chinatown, one of the greatest films of all time. It’s hard to hold it against Towne that he has never since created a work as intricate and flawless as Chinatown, as no one else really has, either.

Even so, it’s hard not to get saddled down by knowing what he is capable of. While his newest effort, Ask the Dust, is a perfectly functional little movie, the remote possibility that it could have been another Chinatown is glaring to the point that it is hard to enjoy. The film isn’t done any favors in advertising itself (both via trailers and synopses as well as in tone and pace) as a film noir, when in fact it is more of a pulp romance with noirish elements. Colin Farrell plays Arturo Bandini, a poor Italian writer in the 1920s who frequents a diner with a feisty Mexican waitress named Camilla (Salma Hayek). After their initial meeting (which involves a fake faint, bad coffee, and a puzzling tip), the bulk of the rest of the film is Arturo and Camilla either throwing racial slurs at each other or throwing body fluids in each other, with the occasional angsty bullshit voiceover by Arturo regarding his lack of work and difficulty in the creative process.

I’ve hated Farrell for a long time, but after The New World, I realized that he was capable of being inoffensive (if not exactly talented), and he rides this career high here. Hayek is also as good as she can be in what is sort of a strange role, one perhaps better suited to an actress without Hayek’s star power. Ultimately, this is one of those films that, had it come from a first-time director, would have been wholly satisfying and relatively highly regarded by both the press and the public. But coming from such a proven talent as Towne, it is hard to regard it as anything but a failure.

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