The thing you can't forget about screenwriter-turned-filmmaker Robert Towne ("Tequila Sunrise," "Personal Best," the scripts for "Shampoo" and "The Last Detail") is one of the most important single facts about the last half-century of American movies: The bleak, immortal ending of "Chinatown" was director Roman Polanski's idea -- not screenwriter Towne's.
It's to Towne that we owe the IDEA (magnificent) of the murderous corruption and scramble for water in a noir Los Angeles. But when it came time to end his extraordinary tale, Towne was going to let poor, soul-crushed Evelyn Mulwray ("she's my sister, she's my daughter") live ambiguously ever after.
Not Polanski. He wanted -- and got -- one of the most powerful and despairing endings in all of American movies: Evelyn dead on the streets of Chinatown; her sister/daughter delivered into the hands of Noah Cross, the monster of Los Angeles; and enraged private eye Jake Gittes being advised: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
Unlike Polanski, Towne is a muzzy sentimentalist, and a particularly California brand of muzzy sentimentalist to boot. This is why Towne's "Ask the Dust" was completely doomed from the get-go.
It's based on a 1939 autobiographical novel by John Fante ("wino writing," as his work was called in a more brutal era), a cult writer whose '70s advocacy by poet Charles Bukowski coincided with Towne's initial desire to turn it into a film. Its very title smacks of '30s tough-guy fatalism a la the more famous title of Horace McCoy's Depression novel, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and the movie it once inspired.
Towne is hopelessly in love with '30s Los Angeles. That elegiac tone is apparent in the opening seconds in Caleb Deschanel's soft-lit cinematography. Deschanel is the father of actresses Zooey and Emily, and he is a kind of local hero here because he made Buffalo look like a nostalgia dream in "The Natural."
You can't tell a tragic and bitter story at the same time that you're in hopeless sentimental thrall to an era. What you wind up with is a pretty bad movie -- lovably, endearingly bad maybe, but still unequivocally bad.
Colin Farrell (not bad but not good, either) plays Fante's autobiographical hero, Arturo Bandini. A struggling writer, Bandini is a working-class Italian in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles who is very conscious of his ethnicity and its place in American caste geography.
Salma Hayek (very good) plays Camila, the Mexican barmaid Bandini falls for and uses as a muse for his writing. Of course, never in American history has there been an era so ethnically obsessive that a woman as beautiful and sensual as Hayek could just flop trays full of beer on the tables of bar patrons without attracting a second glance (or, more likely, the dumbstruck stares of stunned libidos). "Beautiful golden-haired girls . . . grow like oranges around here," says Bandini, thereby identifying beauty with WASP blondness.
In this bar, our hero Bandini -- literally down to his last nickel -- seems to be the only patron to notice that his waitress is a bronze goddess. But with his WASP beauty fixation, he spends most of his time making fun of her sandals. Their nude skinny-dip at night only registers because she jokingly exploits his Coloradan's fear of the ocean (rendered, by the way, brilliantly by Towne in the most affecting scene in the film; only a Californian would hear so much in the roar of the Pacific).
When they do indeed consummate things, it's only really important in this version of Fante's story because it helps him finish his novel. And then, in tuberculosis-haunted America, things take a turn.
There's some humor here. And Towne has always had a pretty good way with movie sex, even as dampered and truncated as it is here. But all that elegy soaks and sozzles the snap out of the dialogue. So much of that snap in the first place is based on hard-boiled ethnic badinage, which now sounds just as phony and quaintly silly as our craven current politically correct pussyfooting around ethnicity.
Almost nothing works about this sentimental and pseudo-gutter romance. If Towne weren't such a script doctor and sentimental favorite of Tom Cruise's -- who produced this with his producing partner -- I doubt it ever would have been made.
In South Africa, no less, whose sound stages pass as '30s Los Angeles.
The tempting thing, then, is to say to Towne: "Forget it, Bob. It's South Africa."
2 Stars (out of 4)
ASK THE DUST
STARRING: Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek and Donald Sutherland
DIRECTOR: Robert Towne
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
RATING: R for nudity, sex and language.
THE LOWDOWN: Struggling writer in '30s Los Angeles hooks up with a beautiful Mexican waitress.
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