Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Ask the Dust:" The writer and the waitress, in love in L.A.

I knew I was going to like "Ask the Dust," the engaging adaptation of John Fante's novel, when the camera panned into Arturo Bandini's (Colin Farrell) hotel room.

There he sat, pecking away on a manual typewriter, wearing suspenders and sucking on oranges, while a ceiling fan slowly turned above him.

Now that's what a writer should look like.

And, as it turns out, "Ask the Dust" is a fascinating character study, a two-hour look at a strained, passionate, ultimately doomed romance between the struggling Italian-American writer Bandini and the beautiful, haunted Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), in Depression-era Los Angeles.

There's is something quite romantic about the image of the starving writer, although such a life is anything but easy. Arturo struggles to pay his rent, is reduced to stealing milk from a delivery cart and most of the time can barely afford a 5-cent cup of coffee.

It's at a diner, spending his last buffalo nickel, where Arturo meets Camilla. They clash at first. Trade insults, ethnic slurs and frustrations.

But the chemistry is palpable. They both deny it for half the movie, but when it comes, it lands like a tidal wave, massive and full of force.

Farrell somehow manages to lose his Irish baroque while wrapping himself in this character. You'd swear he is what he's playing, a young Italian from Colorado. You first think Arturo's sarcastic, angry facade is an act, a hat he wears as the worldly writer.

But over the course of two hours, you learn where it comes from. The slights back in Colorado, all the taunts of "dago" and "greaser" he endured from his classmates.

Camilla can feel his pain. The 1930s were a bad time to be anything but Anglo. When she and Arturo take in a movie, "Dames," at a theater near Laguna Beach, the woman in the seat beside her stares her down, and finally moves to another seat.

It's made worse when the couple sit through Ruby Keeler's infamous line from the movie, "I'm free, I'm white and I'm 21."

What makes this film so engaging is director Robert Townes' laid-back pace. Unlike virtually every other movie released in Hollywood these days, "Ask the Dust" allows for character development. Watching Arturo and Camilla find solace in each other's arms is a delight. It's honest, it's adult, it's real. There's no adolescent "Golly gee whiz" to this romance. Arturo and Camilla are two world-weary adults, both somewhat beaten down by life, who have no illusions and hear no violins.

Both, in their respective ways, are chasing the American dream. Arturo will become the voice of Los Angeles, destined to be the next Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner all rolled into one. When he receives encouragement (and the occasional check) from magazine editor H.L. Mencken, you rejoice along with him.

Camilla works to become an American citizen. She wants to marry a man whose last name is Smith, Jones, or some other Anglican surname (through half the movie she's with a man named, of all things, White), settle down and leave her painful past in the dust.

Hayek's scenes are stunning, not just for her physical beauty, but for the sass, desperation and blunt honesty that she brings to Camilla Lopez. One wishes that all her parts were written with such clarity because she clearly has the talent to make a flesh-and-blood character jump out of the screen.

In the end, the film falters, maybe because of the cliched ending, maybe because something about the finale leaves you flat.

Still, there's a charm to "Ask the Dust," an ever-so-brief blossoming of life, in the love affair between the Italian writer and the Mexican waitress.

"Ask the Dust" is now available on DVD. It is Rated R for language, adult situations and nudity.

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