Thursday, 13 July 2006

Ask the Dust (2006)

Not a Mills and Boon bodice ripper, but a hard-boiled romance

I’ll admit that the poster for Ask the Dust sent me into hysterics the first time I saw it. For one, it reminded me of a cover for one of those hokey, stilted, unintentionally funny Mills and Boon bodice rippers (sorry, gals!) that my sister used to read during her teenage years. She’ll never admit to it now, but I’m more than willing to say that after watching Ask the Dust, I will no longer make fun of its poster. In fact, I happen to believe that this is the most underrated film of the year so far.

Still, do try to ignore the poster, because Ask the Dust is not a bodice ripper type of romance movie. Instead, it’s a period noir film set in 1939 about a struggling writer who, after getting one short story published by the legendary HL Mencken in the American Mercury literary magazine, decides to pack his bags and move to Los Angeles, to better experience life (and women), become a better writer, and live in the centre of the American literary and publishing universe.

To his growing horror, aspiring writer Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell, delivering a performance much better than in Alexander) finds himself to be a naïf, hopelessly out of touch with what women really want, so woefully inexperienced that he is reduced to hiding from his dour landlady (Eileen Atkins), stealing oranges and milk, and accepting favours from perpetually drunk fellow tenant and WW1 veteran Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland). He spends his very last nickel on a what might qualify as the worst cup of coffee in the world, served by a haughty Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek) who just rubs him up the wrong way. The feeling is mutual, and the mean pair bicker with each other, insult each other, as they are alternately attracted and repulsed by each other.

It’s not a period romance, but more of an old-fashioned, thoroughly American story of struggling immigrants and outsiders seeking acceptance and a better life in the promised land, striving to fit in and stand out at the same time. Depression era Los Angeles, the place where old people go to die and young people go to fritter their dreams away, is an appropriately poignant and cutting setting for Arturo and Camilla’s struggles with society and themselves. Here are a pair of very mean and mean-mouthed individuals, insecure with themselves, hungry to get out of poverty, who have to fight with every inch of their minds not to go raving mad from each other’s company – whether out of romantic tension or a mutual (and paranoid) feeling of being insulted.

Romance? No, this script is pure artistry, exuding a writerly glow over the entire movie, an aural glow that demands the modern viewer, long accustomed to throwaway lines in movies, to truly listen to the dialogue. Robert Towne fabricates long volleys of smart, dark, and funny repartee and acts of vengeance between Arturo and Camilla. The interior monologue and stretches of voice-over narration by Arturo possess a literary quality and hardboiled noir sensibility that feels ironic and depressing at the same time, as he admits doubts over his social skills and ability as a writer.

There is also a touch of surreal imagination in Towne’s plotting, as he throws the characters into wild, unlikely, yet utterly believable situations and fantasy sequences, yet maintaining all the while the noir style of the film. Do look out for a memorable appearance by Idina Menzel as a mysterious, erudite but insecure fan of Arturo, whose bonding with the author enables the “mean man” to be just a little nicer to Camilla.

Desire, poverty, pride, the struggle of insecure outsiders to fit in, to belong, to be normal: this is the stuff that great novels are made of, and this screen adaptation of John Fante’s semi-autobiographical novel is just as great.

First published at incinemas on 20 July 2006

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