14 January 2009

Filmbook: "Ask the Dust" (2006)

John Fante is a largely forgotten noir writer who focused on the struggles of working-class men in Los Angeles. ASK THE DUST follows the adventures of Italian-American writer Arturo Bandini, who was eventually the subject of four of Fante's books.

Bandini lives in a dingy SRO on the proceeds of his one sold story, "The Little Dog Laughed," but he has writer's block in the worst way. Instead of working on his great novel, he spends most of his time berating himself for not having already written it and writing long incoherent letters to the editor who bought "The Little Dog Laughed." (The editor turns around and publishes one as fiction, which seems to mock the gritty details of his life.)

When not slowly driving himself mad about squandering his talent, Bandini whiles away the hours staring at a beautiful waitress named Camila at the local greasy spoon. In typical second-grade fashion, he harasses her constantly about her shoes and her language until he decides to pursue her like a madman. The resulting love/hate relationship fuels his belief that he can be a great writer, although it keeps him from his desk.

I have been so waiting for a Filmbook entry like this. If you are going to see the film version of "Ask The Dust," starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, here's what to do: Turn it off after Bandini goes to Long Beach. Everything after that is a maudlin mess which completely undermines the rest of the movie. Really, you'll thank me!

I actually didn't expect much of this movie even though it was written and directed by Robert Towne of "Chinatown" fame, but until Long Beach it preserves for the most part the darkness of the original book. True, everything in the SRO looks a little too clean, and Farrell's hair is flagrantly anachronistic, but he and Hayek animate the quasi-abusive, spiteful couple in just the right way, even though the sex scenes are completely laughable. I cringed at first to see Hayek in such a stereotypical role, but she gives as good as she gets with him -- even illuminating how ineffectual Arturo and his dreams are.

Unfortunately, the end takes a turn quite common to Hollywood movies, rejecting the difficult ending in favor of something easier to swallow. In other words, it completely wimps out and it made me sorry for the rest of the film.

Filmbook verdict: Read the book; see the movie only if Farrell doesn't bug the bejesus out of you (as he does for some, I know!) and if you're prepared to turn the movie off when I say.

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