I suppose that I should have seen it coming. As much as I was enjoying the racist and cruel, but curiously touching repartee between Colin Farrell (as Arturo Bandini) and Salma Hayek (as Camilla Lopez), it was obvious that their banter could not sustain an entire feature-length picture. Movies this rich with homages to Old Hollywood either intend to say something about the films they reference (Far From Heaven) or co-opt an Old Hollywood formula for its own plot (Moulin Rouge!).
Ask the Dust is an example of the latter sort, and for its second act it unfortunately chooses to appropriate the guise of an insipid melodrama. Still, Ask the Dust is an attractive film, and some say that the entire venture was doomed to failure from the start, so perhaps we should regard it, like Kevin Crust, as “a disappointment, but with much to recommend and be glad about.”
I’ve not read Ask the Dust (in fact, to mine own discredit, I had never even heard of John Fante before seeing this film) so I cannot testify to the extent to which it is unfilmable. I can say, though, that there is a disjointed, impressionistic quality that suggests much has been left out. The sun-drenched neo-noir of the first act gives way to soft, warm, sensitive tones in the second (which, I understand, takes great liberties with the source material) in a transition that is not prepared for and is difficult to process.
The song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” provides period flavor in the first half, but in the second half it has apprently been used as a template for the film’s dialogue, which includes lines like, “Don’t let go. Don’t ever let go.” There is a self-deprecating quality to the first half (Bandini refers to himself as “A lover of man and beast alike” in a tone varies from joyful to bitingly sarcastic depending on his fortunes) that is replaced by misguided sincerity in the second.
I can see how one half or the other might appeal to someone, but not both. The first act is clearly more to my taste, and it does offer some real treats. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is sumptuous, tactile. There is a skinny dipping scene in the ocean that more closely approximates the texture of an oil painting than any other film I can recall.
At the same time it has the effectively haunting, other-worldly quality of the swimming scene in Gattaca. The film opens with a wonderful reductionist-noir tableau: an ashtray jammed with cigarette buts and orange peels. Farrell’s staccato voice-over dialogue and the bizarre courtship scenes between Bandini and Camilla in the café have this same quality about them.
After the film settles into a romantic idyll, though, these pleasures become few and far between. Instead, they are replaced by one cliché after another: the happy couple romps on the beach with their dog, Bandini teaches Camilla to read, they make love for the first time. It’s tired, predictable. As David Edelstein succinctly put it, “in period love stories, there’s no such thing as an inconsequential cough.”
There are pieces of a great film in Ask the Dust. It successfully invokes a Los Angeles of yore, some of the dialogue is quite striking, there are visual moments that fall nothing short of stunning. But these pieces are cobbled together with schmaltz, with half-hearted attempts to engage issues of race, with fuzzy-headed invocations of the creative process. “A disappointment, but with much to recommend and be glad about.” Indeed.