As the great documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself reveals, many Hollywood productions never leave home, but it's one of cinema's strange ironies that Los Angeles remains one of the least-explored major American cities, because it's usually a stand-in for someplace else. The recent Crash tried to get inside its racial divisions, but the city still feels like a cardboard backdrop, more a filmmaker's grotesque fantasy than a reflection of the real thing. Robert Towne's Chinatown screenplay has long been a model of language, structure, and sophistication, but it's perhaps most resonant for its deep understanding of Los Angeles and Hollywood—the real city, the fake one, and the places they intersect. Towne has mostly spent his recent years as a writer-for-hire, so it's a special pleasure to see him return to his native city with Ask The Dust, an evocative, flavorful adaptation of John Fante's novel about L.A. during the Depression.
With South Africa serving as a remarkable stand-in for the dust-choked Bunker Hill area circa 1933, Towne draws out the era's rampant poverty and ethnic divisions through a story that plays to his strengths as a writer and a romantic. With H.L. Mencken's stern visage staring at him from the wall of a seedy boarding house, first-generation Italian author Colin Farrell ponders how he's going to spend his last nickel. He's come to California with delusions of literary grandeur, but the words aren't flowing easily, and until he earns a check from Mr. Mencken, he's forced to subsist on stolen oranges and dodge his landlady. Ferrell ultimately decides to waste that precious nickel on a truly awful cup of coffee from a diner across the street, but his Mexican waitress (Salma Hayek) extracts a different kind of price.
Their relationship plays out along the deep fault lines separating them: Both are immigrants who have been pilloried for their ethnicity at one time or another, but Farrell doesn't really see them as equals, and his feelings for Hayek brush against his shame and romantic inadequacy. Towne doesn't shortchange the ugliness that occasionally surfaces in his hero's character, which makes it all the more moving when love redeems him. The frisky early exchanges between Farrell and Hayek, charged in equal parts by hostility and eroticism, and graced by some gorgeous stretches of dialogue, comprise the film's strongest section. But once the lovers leave Bunker Hill for the coast, the Towne of Tequila Sunrise takes over for the Towne of Chinatown, and the film suddenly falls slack under the weight of its moony-eyed romanticism. Ask The Dust may find Towne a little past his prime, but after so much time in the Hollywood wilderness, it's good to see him trying again.