"Ask the Dust" is John Fante's classic novel as if fixed in amber. A long-nourished dream project for Robert Towne, this story of Depression-era down-and-outers in Los Angeles takes place just a stone's throw from the denouement of "Chinatown." Commercial prospects are soft for the Paramount Classics release.

A film that feels like it’s from another time and place, “Ask the Dust” is John Fante’s classic novel as if fixed in amber. A long-nourished dream project for Robert Towne, this story of Depression-era down-and-outers in Los Angeles takes place just a stone’s throw from the denouement of “Chinatown,” with an emphasis on marginal lives that also recalls “The Day of the Locust” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Highlighted by a strong and sensual performance from Salma Hayek as the doomed heroine, elegant pic’s muted quality and the central character’s vexingly contrary behavior will keep auds from connecting with characters who themselves have trouble establishing bonds. Commercial prospects are soft for the Paramount Classics release.

For decades, unofficial old-Los Angeles dramatist laureate Towne cherished making Fante’s 1939 novel, an autobiographical work about the writer’s early struggles while living in a Bunker Hill boarding house. Repeated work-for-hire on Tom Cruise projects such as “Days of Thunder” and the “Mission: Impossible” pics evidently earned Towne enough points with Cruise/Wagner for the company to back the venture at Paramount. Ironically, however, due to the modernization of the city, the film ended up being shot in South Africa, where a large set repping Downtown L.A., circa 1933, was built from scratch, with further embellishments courtesy of CGI.

After retro credits on the turning pages of a book, it’s modern computer wizardry that is responsible for the spectacular opening shot, one that will delight old-L.A. nostaligists. Beginning high in the hills, with the ocean visible in the distance, the panoramic perspective descends toward a realistically rendered Downtown, finally coming to rest on a room at the dingy Alta Loma, where young Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) is down to his last nickel.

Subsisting on oranges and cigarettes, and with the fierce visage of H.L. Mencken, who intermittently publishes his stories peering down at him from a photo on the wall, Bandini is trying to find his voice as a writer.

Ultimately, it’s the city streets, and the lonely, wounded and desperate souls who populate them, that will supply Bandini with material. Mainly, there is Camilla (Hayek), a beautiful Mexican waitress at the nearby Columbia Cafe. From their first meeting, they’re drawn together, but Bandini can’t help insulting her and nipping the latent romantic possibilities in the bud. Bandini even blows it when the two drive out to the beach one night and Camilla initiates a nude moonlight swim.

Through this scene and beyond, Hayek’s sexiness is so palpable you can scarcely believe the virginal but experience-seeking Bandini keeps driving such a ripe and available opportunity away. Instead, he develops an odd bond with a desperately insecure Jewess, Vera Rivkin (Idina Menzel).

When Camilla returns to Bandini once more, she rightly accuses him of being afraid to screw her. In retreat, he heads down to Long Beach to visit Vera, only to be caught in the Long Beach earthquake.

Although the ethnic/racial demarcations were present in the novel, Towne has emphasized them further, especially toward the end when everything between Bandini and Camilla hangs in the balance; as Bandini himself was the victim of anti-Italian prejudice in his Colorado youth, Camilla wrongly assumes he can empathize with what she experiences as a Mexican in California. Pic’s final stretch, elaborated significantly from the novel, ends things on a flat note.

Bandini’s own shortcomings, a tentativeness and faint-heartedness that mix oddly with a kind of hard-headed arrogance, were acceptable on the page because of the character’s first-person observational stance. Watching the man objectively onscreen (despite the abundance of voiceover) is another matter altogether; he’s hardly the stuff of screen heroes, or even antiheroes, his behavior perplexing and disappointing. Farrell portrays him credibly and well, echoing at times the exuberant youthfulness of his performance in “A Home at the End of the World,” but the man remains a muddle of indecision.

By contrast, Hayek is in full blossom as Camilla. She may not be as cheap and bedraggled-looking at the outset as one imagines the character on the page, but the actress soon brings her to full emotional life as she engages in a self-destructive, even if momentarily fulfilling, to-and-fro with Bandini.

Menzel socks over her needy character in some sad scenes, Donald Sutherland represents a living reminder of “The Day of the Locust” as an aged neighbor of Bandini’s, Justin Kirk has some tangy moments as Camilla’s boss and sometime lover, and Eileen Atkins is on just long enough as the Alta Loma’s presiding matron to inform that the august establishment does not allow Mexicans or Jews. Critic Richard Schickel intones the voice of Mencken.

Enormous effort has gone into the production’s look, the brownish, desaturated nature of which makes this Los Angeles seem permanently parched by the Santa Ana winds. Dennis Gassner’s production design, which includes the famous Angels’ Flight, is wonderful to behold even as it gives the picture more of a ’30s backlot feel than of one shot on actual locations. Scenes depicting such other locales as Long Beach (including an amusement park) and Laguna Beach are evocative if minimalist, with Caleb Deschanel’s camera deliciously illuminating the settings and the leading players, who have been costumed to a tee by Albert Wolsky.

Score by Ramin Djawadi and Heitor Pereira seemingly takes its cue from Django Reinhardt in the successful pursuit of its flavorsome, offbeat moods.

Ask the Dust

Production

A Paramount Classics release presented in association with Capitol Films of a Cruise/Wagner, VIP Medienfonds 3, Ascendant production. Produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Don Granger, Jonas McCord. Executive producers, Redmond Morris, Mark Roemmich, David Selvan, Andreas Schmid, Andy Grosch, Chris Roberts. Co-producers, Galit Hakmon McCord, Kia Jam. Directed, written by Robert Towne, based on the novel by John Fante.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Caleb Deschanel; editor, Robert K. Lambert; music, Ramin Djawadi, Heitor Pereira; production designer, Dennis Gassner; supervising art director, Richard Johnson, art director, Tom Hannam; set decorator, Nancy Haigh; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Nico Louw; supervising sound editor, Scott A. Hecker; supervising sound mixers, Andy Koyama, Chris Carpenter; visual effects supervisor, Dave Drzewiecki; visual effects, Double Edge Digital, Pacific Title & Art Studio, Lola Visual Effects, Condor Post Cape Town; assistant director, Tommy Gormley; casting, Hank McCann (U.S.), Celestia Fox (U.K.), Ana Feyder (South Africa). Reviewed at Paramount studios, Los Angeles, Feb. 1, 2006. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival -- opening night.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Arturo Bandini - Colin Farrell Camilla - Salma Hayek Hellfrick - Donald Sutherland Mrs. Hargraves - Eileen Atkins Vera Rivkin - Idina Menzel Sammy - Justin Kirk Solomon - Jeremy Crutchley Voice of Mencken - Richard Schickel

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