I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Towne give a talk in Toronto, in which he mused on his long and (mostly) illustrious career. From Chinatown to Personal Best to The Firm, he spouted off anecdotes and insights into Hollywood and the screen writing process in general.
Then the audience was treated to a special preview screening of "Ask the Dust." It would seem that this has been a labour of love for Mr. Towne; one that has been several decades in the making. So in that sense, perhaps this film doesn't merit harsh criticism. The fact that Towne got it made is to be commended.
It's not a bad film, by any right. It boasts two decent performances from its leads Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell, lush cinematography, meticulous period detail and a sumptuous score. All the elements of a great film are there. However, nothing really gels.
My guess is that the source material is the film's ultimate downfall. It's dated, and contradictory. What begins as a pulpy potboiler in the vein of "The Postman Rings Twice" becomes a politically correct tirade against intolerance. Oh, and there's a healthy dose of "La Boheme" thrown in there for good measure.
The first half of the film is intriguing as the characters' motivations are enigmatic and unpredictable. Hayek comes across as a latina femme fatale, while Farrell plays the flawed noirish anti-hero. L.A. itself is a character - one of a city at odds with its surroundings. The description of the sand (or dust) from the desert filling the air is particularly poignant.
Halfway through, the film takes a perplexing turn. Turns out there is no mystery behind the motives of the leads. They just wanted to be loved/understood. Cue Hollywood clichés, and end scene. You can't help but be disappointed.
Perhaps in the hands of a '70s auteur director like Polanski, Antonioni or Bob Rafelson, the source material could have been tweaked or restructured to yield a more surprising and challenging film. I even wondered what the film would have been like with a 70s screen icon like Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino in the lead role.
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