Ask the Dust

It feels like “Ask the Dust” has scenes, or perhaps just key lines of dialogue, missing from it. The two central characters’ actions seem unmotivated much of the time. They get angry over odd things, and they love each other yet sometimes engage in precipitate cruelty and racial slurring. They might understand each other, but I do not understand them.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by John Fante, “Ask the Dust” is a romantic drama set in a sepia-toned Depression-era Los Angeles, where Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) has come to make his fortune as a writer. Arturo was born in Colorado, but his parents emigrated from Italy, and he endures the scorn sometimes heaped upon immigrants by white Americans. He doesn’t look Italian to me — he looks like Colin Farrell — but perhaps people in the 1930s had keener ethnicity-detecting abilities.

Being kept barely afloat with money and encouragement from magazine editor H.L. Mencken (represented by a voice-over by Richard Schickel), Arturo lives in a small, sweaty hotel room and spends evenings at a diner, where he soon falls in love/hate with the waitress, Camilla (Salma Hayek). She is from Mexico and hopes to earn her U.S. citizenship one day. Like Arturo, she wants to be “white.” They resent each other’s non-caucasian background and fight against falling in love. What good would it do Camilla to marry another non-white, after all? And how will dating a Mexican help Arturo to be accepted into Los Angeles society?

The film was written and directed by Robert Towne, who wrote “Chinatown,” hailed by many as The Perfect Screenplay. But “Ask the Dust” is a long way from “Chinatown.” Maybe some of the flaws were inherent in the source material, but the present film is full of odd, out-of-nowhere developments. There’s Arturo’s calm, deliberate anger over being served a bad cup of coffee; the sudden appearance in his hotel room of a loony woman named Vera (Idina Menzel), who goes on to be a love interest and tragic figure; and the seemingly purposeless character of Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), a dotty old man who lives down the hall from Arturo.

It is also very disappointing to see the film engage in one of the oldest of clichés: If a movie character coughs, it is the first symptom that he or she has a fatal illness. Like so many other elements in the movie, that one drops out of the clear blue sky. The details add up to a story, but it’s not cohesive and fluid enough to be engaging. How are we supposed to love the characters when we never understand their behavior?

C (1 hr., 57 min.; R, lots of nudity, some strong sexuality, a little profanity.)