'Dust' settles on bygone L.A.

'Ask the Dust' is the story of two social climbers during the Depression.

Robert Towne first discovered John Fante's Depression-era novel "Ask the Dust" while researching his 1974 movie "Chinatown," and tried for 30 years to adapt it for the screen. The film he has finally made from it, starring Colin Farrell as Arturo Bandini, a struggling novelist, and Salma Hayek as Camilla López, a Mexican waitress, is shot through with a yearning for a city that has long ago faded from view.

Towne had to reconstruct L.A.'s Bunker Hill district in, of all places, South Africa, and the effect is appropriately otherworldly. The City of Angels here is not a location but a state of mind, an evanescence.

Towne, who wrote and directed, is careful to root the otherworldiness in specifics. At his best, he's the premier poet of Los Angeles, and his new film is filled with marvelous period details - like the way Arturo and Camilla, both impoverished, are careful to wear at least one sharp piece of clothing in public. Despite, or perhaps because of, their penury, both of these people are prideful.

They are also headstrong, a characteristic well within the range of both actors. The son of Italian immigrants, Arturo wants to write the great American novel and marry a big blonde; Camilla wants to marry "up" and shed her Mexican heritage. Neither really wants to be with the other, but passion overrules their social-climbing skills.

It is often not remembered how divisive and antagonistic the relationship between Anglos and Mexicans was in the Los Angeles of this time. The racial friction between Arturo and Camilla may seem trumped up, but if anything, given the era's biases, it is probably underplayed.

On the other hand, you wouldn't really want to see either actor give it any more than they already have. At times, Hayek seems to be recapping her role as Frida Kahlo. Her spitfire spunk occasionally descends into camp. It is when Camilla shows some vulnerability, especially toward the end, that the performance becomes touching. (Even more touching is Idina Menzel as a woman who is coming apart and helpless to stop it.)

Farrell's performance is more problematic. He always gives the impression of being "on," even when he is in repose. His Arturo doesn't have much inner life, and so he becomes tiresome. His hostility toward Camilla doesn't make emotional sense since nothing in him goes very deep, including his prejudices. As a result, what should be a hot pairing and a publicist's dream is pretty lackluster.

And yet despite these difficulties, as well as a regrettable staginess to many of the set pieces, "Ask the Dust" does manage to cast a spell. The film is not only an evocation of a bygone era but an emanation of it as well. Grade: B

Rated R for some sexuality, nudity and language.

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