There’s a late-‘80s episode of The Golden Girls where Blanche and Rose befriend two teenagers as part of the “Be a Pal” program. The young ladies want to go to a movie and Rose, bubbly as always, suggests a few options: “We can go see Oliver & Company. Or Roger Rabbit.” To which one of the girls replies, “Or Tequila Sunrise? I hear Mel Gibson takes his shirt off a lot.” That more or less sums up Ask the Dust—a film written and directed by ‘70s screenwriting icon, and Tequila Sunrise auteur, Robert Towne—in which Colin Farrell dons and doffs a white athletic undershirt (one of those shorthand symbols of tortured masculinity marked by sweat stains and cigarette ash) with relatively rhythmic precision. And yet, Towne’s film is all foreplay, the work of a pornographer more interested in narrative construction than in sex. Makes for pretty boring porn, though this is nothing new for Towne; indeed, it pretty much exemplifies the majority of his work, especially in his more recent role as scriptwriter-du-jour to superstar and Ask the Dust producer Tom Cruise. Recall how the unholy triumvirate of Towne, Cruise, and John Woo made Mission Impossible 2 a head-slappingly pathetic elegy to its protagonist’s perfectly maintained coiffure and you’ll get a sense of how the writer-director’s ode to the City of Angels fatally derails.
Based on the second of author John Fante’s semi-autobiographical series of novels, Ask the Dust details the metaphor-laden love affair between struggling Italian-American author Arturo Bandini (Farrell) and Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek) with the couple embodying a hodgepodge of depression-era Los Angeles’s racial, social, and political ills. It’s L.A. Confidential as a romance instead of a murder mystery though this is not meant to devalue Fante’s work (of which I’ve only skimmed a few pages) so much as it is to criticize Towne’s interpretation of it. By all accounts Fante is one of those hard-boiled eggs whose prose practically drips a uniquely male breed of cynicism and atmosphere masking a perpetually tormented emotional center—it makes sense that Charles Bukowski, who helped to inaugurate Fante’s posthumous popularity, was one of the author’s dyed-in-the-wool fanatics. Towne is also a fan and was a friend of Fante, but his film replaces down-n-dirty with spit-n-polish.
Things are off from Ask the Dust‘s intriguingly retro credit sequence, a floridly romanticized digital tracking shot into L.A.‘s long-gone Bunker Hill neighborhood. The CG era has encouraged a lot of laziness in the ‘70s turks, the worst of whom view the computer as a stress-relieving tool as opposed to a singular point on the artistic palette. It nonetheless goes a way toward separating the chaff from the wheat and Towne, lacking the deep-rooted directorial psychosis of a De Palma or a Polanski, is most definitely chaff. (How long can one man piggyback on the success of Chinatown? The beat goes on…) The film’s press packet makes particular note of Towne’s intimate knowledge of Los Angelean history, but as a director he seems to have more of a trivia buff’s fascination. He knows where the buildings were, but can’t for the life of him find the souls inside.
He set himself quite a task by casting Farrell and Hayek in the lead roles, both superficial personalities who need a director attuned to their respective physicalities, able to match them up with the appropriate negative spaces. Farrell’s boyishness is the furthest thing from hard-bitten and desperate; he seems pampered, like a jet-setting playboy off for a jaunt among the proles. He was a perfect John Smith in The New World because Terrence Malick focused more on his Popeye-like biceps in relation to Pocahontas’s petite yet majestic innocence: a superbly physicalized symbol of one culture embracing, in ways assimilating, another. Farrell towered in The New World where in Ask the Dust he’s reduced to a blank-faced cipher. Experience needs to graft itself onto Bandini’s face so that, by the time the third-act TB heartbreak rolls around, the journey has been irrevocably etched. Farrell can’t enact such regret under Towne’s circumstances so he has to make do with those old shorthand standbys—a monologue and a moustache.
Hayek is slightly better though she’s hard-pressed to transcend her character’s status as a wilting, rose-red symbol. A climactic sequence set in a movie theater is meant to encapsulate all the destructive racial tensions of the time, but Hayek can do little more than indicate Camilla’s pain, turning it into a signpost signifier that Towne, acting the camp queen, makes sure we notice by cutting in an (in)appropriate line of dialogue from the Joan Blondell film Dames. And “camp” doesn’t even begin to describe the two leads’ love scenes, an embarrassment of chiaroscuro riches, centered around perfectly placed beams of moonlight, that play like a test reel for that infamous Michael Douglas ass shot in Basic Instinct. (Towne sees sex and love as a postmodern mixture of crashing waves and copious dissolves, with obscurantist shadows rendering each individual an anonymous huff-n-puff slab of meat.)
With Donald Sutherland and Dame Eileen Atkins popping in now and again to mark time on the queue in paycheck purgatory, it falls to Idina Menzel, as the mentally unhinged Vera Rifkin, to inject some life into the proceedings. Towne treats her like a slab of meat too (the literal scars her character bears are shown only once as a kind of shock-tinged throwaway gag), but Menzel’s theatrical training helps her to get out from under the creator’s reductive kino-eye. She doesn’t quite fit into this hermetically sealed Los Angeles (recreated on South African soundstages and locales by production designer Dennis Gassner) and that’s a blessing in disguise. Ask the Dust takes flight whenever she’s on-screen, which makes her sudden removal in a cheaply visualized earthquake (seemingly brought on by the killer worms from Tremors) all the more upsetting. Beyond that, Ask the Dust‘s most salient point of interest is the vocal casting of movie critic Richard Schickel as a paternalistic, advice-prone H.L. Mencken, a seemingly inspired choice, but one that quickly devolves due to Schickel’s sonorous intonations, which are on par with the hagiographic, exhausted, and/or condescending mannerisms his work typically exhibits. It’s just one more illustration of the general lifelessness of Ask the Dust, which, when you get right down to it, is unforgivably dull as dishwater. Though that, it should be noted, is an insult to dishwater.