There's hardly an odder subject for a movie: a story about a struggling writer in '30s Hollywood (then Hollywoodland) that barely involves the movies.
Directed by noted screenwriter Robert Towne from an adaptation of a '30s novel by John Fante, "Ask the Dust" is also about a young author in Hollywoodland, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell). Arturo does not write screenplays, but essays, of all things. Needless to say, he's pretty lonely there. Arturo's been published in H.L. Mencken's popular magazine The American Mercury. But when we meet him, he's down to his last nickel, having been outwritten during his time in Los Angeles by his landlady's eviction notices.
That's one of the movie's lines. Audiences are likely to be bemused at cornball jokes like that, but "Ask the Dust" contains an archness that is eventually off-putting. Characters speak and move with exaggeration. When Arturo isn't popping his suspenders, pushing his hat forward or twirling a toothpick on his lips, his voice-over is running around town saying things like "friend to beast and man alike." A romance with the feisty and incredibly sexy Mexican gal Camilla (Salma Hayek) only intensifies the goofiness.
"Ask the Dust" can be bewildering unless you get the homage. Towne isn't just trying to re-create the '30s; he's trying to re-create a film from the '30s. But why? Such an eccentricity will be cute to those who get it, endearing to fans of cinema from the era. But these folks could just as likely balk at the Hallmark-movie aspects on display, clichés like the writer typing furiously at his Underwood and balling up misbegotten drafts, and trite conventions like the glowing sunsets at a beach house, interrupted by spasms of foreboding coughs. Sick is how you too will feel once you realize you've rented the romantic-comedy treatment of the Golden Age of Hollywood. S