[Screen It]

(2006) (Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek) (R)

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Drama: A struggling Italian-American writer and a fiery Mexican waitress end up having an affair in Depression-era Los Angeles.
It's 1930s Los Angeles and Italian-American writer Arturo Bandini (COLIN FARRELL) has burned through most of the money he arrived with five months ago hoping to become the next big author. Suffering from writer's block and a lack of funds, and occasionally receiving visits from alcoholic war veteran Hellfrick (DONALD SUTHERLAND), his luck would seem to change when he meets the ravishing Camilla Lopez (SALMA HAYEK), a Mexican waitress who works at a nearby restaurant.

But they're like cats and dogs around each other, although their antagonistic behavior obviously hides a growing desire between them, something bartender Sammy White (JUSTIN KIRK) is quick to note. It's not long before Arturo and Camilla are having a torrid affair, but that doesn't stop him from also seeing homemaker Vera Rifkin (IDINA MENZEL) who suddenly appears in his life.

As time passes and Arturo tries to make a living writing for editor H.L. Mencken, he and Camilla try to sort out their feelings about each other as well as trying to live the American dream in desperate times.

OUR TAKE: 4out of 10
If there's one thing in which Hollywood always seems to excel, it's production design. With the right amount of money and talent, they can essentially recreate most any setting of most any era. While only historians and those still alive who may have lived during those times can attest to the technical accuracy of what appears on the screen, more often than not it's good enough to fool the average layperson.

Such is the case in "Ask the Dust," the period drama adapted from novelist John Fante's work of the same name. I have to admit I was never in Los Angeles during the 1930s. Yet, for what it's worth, I have to say that production designer Dennis Gassner, costumer Albert Wolsky and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel seem to have gotten the look and feel of the location and era down pat.

If only the same could be said for writer/director Robert Towne and his lead performers Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek and their contributions. Something of a mix of film noir and those "opposites attract" romantic dramas, the picture is off just as much as the production values are right. All of which is surprising considering that Towne also wrote what many critics deem as one of the best period dramas ever made, "Chinatown" (directed by Roman Polanski).

Of course, as is the case with most any profession, you can't be perfect all of the time, and this is definitely proof positive of that. In the film, Ferrell plays a struggling writer trying to make a go off it in L.A. Hayek plays a gorgeous Mexican waitress who hates going out to white establishments due to rampant racism and ends up serving Ferrell's character.

Arturo and Camilla are instantly of the cat and dog variety, which means in movie terms that they'll soon be belting out Presley's "Hunka-hunka burnin' love" about each other if only the future rock and roll star had been out of his diapers at the time. Accordingly, they bicker, spat and generally can't stand each other -- that is, except when they can't keep their eyes and paws to themselves.

It's a scenario that works better in comedies than dramas -- think of "The Philadelphia Story" or TV's early seasons of "Cheers" -- but it's not a bad gambit if handled just right. Alas, Towne and his leads near completely bungle both their characters and the passionate relationship between them.

With Ferrell seemingly channeling how Robert Downey, Jr. might have played the role and Hayek doing just yet another variation of her hot-blooded spitfire, the chemistry between them -- positive or negative -- never gets off the periodic table. As a result, we don't care about them or the outcome -- either way -- of their fiery and constantly alternating association. Even their attempts to spice things up by frolicking and then more while nude in the nighttime surf fall flat.

The same holds true for the eventual introduction of the somewhat unhinged character played by Idina Menzel. Her appearance is an apparent attempt to create something of a triangular relationship. Like the rest of the drama, however, it just doesn't work (and not having read the original novel, I can't say if any of it works better in written form). Donald Sutherland and Justin Kirk are present in smaller, supporting roles, but can't add much due to the temporal and script-related restrictions.

The occasional voice-over narration (from Ferrell's writer character) and overall episodic nature don't do the film any favors. And by the time the predictable and supposed tear jerker bit finally comes along at the end, you likely won't be emotionally connected or otherwise engaged enough to think about much beyond wondering how this could have been made by the same guy who wrote "Chinatown." Likely to bite the latter part of its title rather than achieve the legendary status of its period cousin, the fabulous looking but otherwise dull "Ask the Dust" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 6, 2006 / Posted March 24, 2006

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