Ask the Dust
Time Out says
Hollywood’s history is littered with adaptations of stories that should have stayed on the bookshelf, though most folks would have played the odds on writer-director Robert Towne competently handling John Fante’s pessimistic masterpiece. Who better to tackle one of the great curdled-California novels than the man behind Jake Gittes? Sadly, “Just about anyone else!” is what you’d like to loudly holler back after seeing this surprisingly stilted dramatization. Like so many other good-intentioned attempts to convert magnificent prose into a movie, the film loses the original’s vitality in the translation. It follows the book with fidelity yet, sans the author’s voice, fatally misses the point.
Towne knows the sunburnt terrain well enough, and establishes with one shot of a rotting palm tree that this isn’t the land of glamorous starlets, but of gutter-scraping losers. Still, the doomed romance between struggling writer Arturo Bandini (Farrell) and his hophead Hispanic ladylove (Hayek) feels like it was lifted from a bad TV movie, thanks to a litany of faux-fiery exchanges, magic-hour sunset strolls and Victorian tragedy via tubercular hacking. Both Farrell and Hayek seem curiously miscast; when Donald Sutherland’s weirdo neighbor shows up, you’ll find yourself missing The Day of the Locust more than ever. For three decades. it’s been Towne’s dream to bring to the screen Fante’s poison-pen letter to Los Angeles, but forget it, Bob. This ain’t Chinatown. (Opens Fri; see Index for venues.)—David Fear