This romantic drama from Robert Towne (Tequila Sunrise) has much atmosphere and lust going for it. And, it helps to have leads like Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. Yet, it seems like Ask the Dust has gathered too much dust in being adapted to the screen.
The source Towne uses is the John Fante Depression-era novel based on the writer's affair with a woman with similar ambitions. Womanizing Irish actor Farrell plays the moody Arturo Bandini castigated from Colorado because of his Italian heritage. Bandini happens to be "ignorant of women and life and afraid of both", perhaps a bit of a stretch for Farrell.
Bandini moves to Los Angeles aspiring to be a successful writer and ends up in a rundown boarding house. Thoughts of fame, fortune, and voluptuous blondes aren't being realized when he meets Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez, as Hayek placates Towne with an ebullient, smoldering presence. Camilla is illiterate and wants to marry to get rid of her roots. When the barmaid gets Arturo a cup of coffee on his last nickel, the attraction will prime a love/hate relationship.
Ask the Dust meanders with cultural strife, emotional and aching desire. The pas-de-deux of Farrell and Hayek crests when they are wet and unclothed, but more often than not is stilted like the story or Bandini himself. There will be help to get over writer's block to craft a great American novel thanks to a benefactor (voiced by film critic Richard Schickel). And, sexual tension and racial vehemence may have an idyllic turnabout as time in a beach house and the welcoming of a stray dog may indicate.
Still, the hard-boiled dialogue may be how the struggling writer needs to pursue a feverish dream. The pain and disillusionment is nicely etched by Farrell, but the melodrama overwhelms him. Besides the decaying material and the feisty, coughing Hayek, he's upstaged by supporting actress Idina Menzel, the performance artist in Rent, who is a strange, alluring Jewish wife with bad scars. Their intimate encounter is felt with pathos, albeit in a predictable manner.
What Towne does well with his crew, especially estimable lenser Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ), is evoke the Los Angeles of a frayed epoch with the sepia glow that a writer like Bandini would metaphorically milk for someone like Camilla. Too bad the scenarist of the legendary "Chinatown" is bogged down conceptualizing Fante's pristine prose into something arid about intolerance and uninvolving rather than being like Camilla's hot tamale of a woman.