Ask the Dust
There’s a reason Charles Bukowski thought John Fante was the greatest novelist California had ever produced and adopted him as a role model. In a series of autobiographical novels in the late 1930s and early ’40s, Fante scrubbed the romance off Los Angeles and described its cruelty, lusts, thrills, and poverty in vivid detail and with propulsive momentum. Perhaps that’s why writer-director Robert Towne admired Fante, too, but Towne’s adaptation of Fante’s best novel, Ask the Dust, reapplies the romance and saps the story of its energy.
Towne was researching 1930s California for his Chinatown script when he came across Fante’s book and found it rang truer than anything else on the subject. Towne met Fante, a Hollywood screenwriter himself, and promised to bring Ask the Dust to the screen. It took 30 years, long after Fante himself died in 1983. Along the way, both Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio were mentioned as leads.
Dust might have been a much better movie if either actor had actually made the movie; instead, Towne ended up with Colin Farrell as Fante’s alter ego Arturo Bandini, Fante’s alter ego. Farrell can be a fine actor when his character is governed by instinct rather than intellect, but asking him to play a writer asks too much. The camera stares at his doughy face with its bushy eyebrows and handsome cheekbones and sees no evidence of mental gears turning.
Having published a short story in H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury magazine, Bandini decides to move from his native Colorado to L.A. to write the Great American Novel. While he’s waiting for that to happen, he lives in a flophouse hotel, surviving on cheap oranges, and worrying how he can escape his awkwardness around women and the virginity that has resulted. After a lifetime of suffering anti-Italian prejudice, he feels justified in making ethnic cracks about his new neighbors. He even tries to pick up Camilla (Salma Hayek), the Mexican waitress at the local restaurant, by insulting her huaraches.
This unpleasantness worked in the book, because everything about the novel, even the alter-ego lead character, had an unsanded roughness. But in the movie, where the impoverished writer and the Mexican waitress are obviously “meeting cute,” the ethnic insults are jarringly out of tune with the flirtation in the air. Hayek delivers the dialogue as if it were tongue-in-cheek banter from a romantic comedy and not real insults from a blue-collar drama. Hayek is as ravishingly beautiful as ever, but she gives no hint that she’s ever experienced poverty’s demands.
The movie, shot outside Johannesburg, South Africa, has a nostalgic glow, as if it were an L.A. theme park rather than the real thing. There’s an earthquake, skinny dipping in the ocean, and a cameo by Donald Sutherland as a gay, alcoholic World War I veteran in the next hotel room. But Towne never resolves the contradiction between the novel’s pushy, raw realism and his languorous, romantic movie. As a result, Fante will probably remain underappreciated for another generation.