Colin Farrell’s voiceover at the beginning of Ask the Dust makes it clear that Robert Towne’s new film is in love with words. This is not to say that it proceeds stagily, that Towne neglects his camera, or that the film lacks handsomely composed shots and images. It is, however, dependent on narration, and not just of the voiceover variety: Towne’s characters talk and yell and talk some more, until all the words blend together.
Some attention to words is to be expected. The film is based on a novel about a writer. Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) arrives in Depression era Los Angeles, with his first short story just published and a determination to publish more. He means to write himself a “better” life. When not writing, he skulks around a local tavern, where he meets a waitress, Camilla (Salma Hayek). They’re immediately attracted to each other (as they should be, both being played by gorgeous movie stars), but express it mostly through hot-and-cold hostility, continuing through at least half the movie.
This hostility is rendered in extended conversations that fail to go anywhere. Indeed, they hardly seem like conversations at all, but dissertations on the characters’ insecurities. Aspiring to be “Americans,” Arturo and Camilla both feel self-conscious about race and ethnicity; he recalls childhood taunts about his Italian background, and takes it out on Camilla (who expresses a desire to marry a wholesome white man) with slurs about her Mexican background.
This is all interesting in theory, but in practice, it involves a great deal of time spent with two people refusing to make a connection. If Arturo and Camilla could converse, rather than engage in alternating, standoffish narrations of each other’s problems, we might feel more invested in their relationship.
It doesn’t help matters that the movie struggles to convince us that either character has such a bad life. Arturo starts out an impoverished writer, yes, but it’s not long before he becomes (with what seems like relatively little difficulty) a repeatedly published, decently paid short story writer, complete with encouraging letters from his hero, H.L. Mencken.
Camilla must face prejudice from some whites, along with the attentions of several male suitors. At times, the characters’ context becomes vivid, as when Arturo and Camilla’s one traditional date — an evening out at the movies — is interrupted by casual racism. But mostly, the movie remains narrowly focused on Arturo’s efforts to advance from “mere” short stories via a manly novel, and Camilla’s desire for love with this sexiest and least pleasant of her gentleman callers. The former storyline is particularly anticlimactic with its insistence on the grandness of the “American novel.” The audience is never invited to ask if maybe Arturo should be pleased to be paid for writing at all.
Ironically, for a film about writing, Ask the Dust becomes more convincing the further it strays from the written word, basically, any silent moments between the two stars. While burdened with excessive dialogue, Farrell is bravely awkward, game for his character’s twitchy outbursts, while Hayek downplays glamour but not her beauty. The atmosphere works, too: Towne shot in Africa to convey the dusty, developing state of ’30s L.A. But rather than letting visuals tell the story over his arid, evocative landscape, Towne repeatedly floods the screen with distracting words.