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I hate me more than you do: (l-r) Farrell and Hayek in Ask the Dust.

From Dust to Drek
By John Rodat

Ask the Dust

Directed by Robert Towne

Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust is not wholly without merit—only nearly so.

In his version of John Fante’s semi- autobiographical novel of 1930s Los Angeles, legendary screenwriter Towne (Chinatown) does present attractively romantic scenery. It’s a noirish film, yet one that eschews the nighttime urban chill of black-and-white for the warmer colors of the desert on which the city was built—or imposed, depending on your point of view. And this makes sense, given the movie’s attempted exploration of native-vs.-immigrant, and early-vs.-late-immigrant, tension.

Colin Farrell plays Fante’s alter ego Arturo Bandini, an Italian-American author with one published story to his credit. Bandini has relocated to California from Colorado to make it big, to make it rich and to make it with a whole bevy of pale, blonde American beauties. Unsurprisingly, this dream proves more elusive than expected, due in part to the fact that Arturo is “ignorant of women and life and afraid of both.” His fear, we learn, is rooted in immigrant shame, a shame complicated and highlighted when the struggling writer falls for Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), a Mexican waitress.

The self-loathing pair are each desperate to assimilate, to get for themselves the kind of security they imagine comes easily to gringos: Arturo plans to write his way to respectability (he toasts to a photo of his hero and patron, H.L. Mencken) while Camilla plans to marry her way to a more acceptable pigment, metaphorically (Arturo’s only rival for Camilla’s affection is another aspiring writer named Sammy White). So, they wrestle with their passion—as Camilla notes, going from Lopez to Bandini is hardly progress—by hurling ethnic slurs and epithets at one another.

This is decent, if not revolutionary, material for a story, and the very nature of Arturo’s affection, which at times seems more a wrongheaded yearning for Camilla’s imagined aboriginal “purity” than real love, could provide some engaging complexity. Well, it could if the script weren’t so ponderous and made-for-TV-predictable or if either lead could act their way out of a sack.

Farrell does a good job concealing his accent, but does almost nothing else to serve the character. Arturo’s mercurial temper is the product of low self-esteem and confusion not, as Farrell’s portrayal might have you guess, gas. Farrell can do bad boy, but he can’t do repentant or conflicted. Towne allows him to illustrate Arturo’s guilt and misgivings by following each emotional outburst with some kind of facial contortion or tic, an eyebrow waggle or half leer—each more distracting and goofier than the previous. Hayek isn’t much better.

But, like the set design, they are pretty. And, yes, there’s some nakedness, but even that seems more prop room than bedroom. Towne has been trying to get this movie made since stumbling across Fante’s novel when researching Chinatown, and names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Val Kilmer were all once attached. I’m not saying any of them would have done a better job, but none could have done much worse. (In either lead role, come to think of it.)

—John Rodat

Monsters From the Id

American Dreamz

Directed by Paul Weitz

The gleefully dark satire American Dreamz demands a lot from audiences. Surprisingly, despite the fact that entire scenes are dreadful, it’s worth your commitment.

First, you have to suspend disbelief long enough to accept a comic setup involving an American Idol-type show, suicide bombers and a president of the United States of America. Then, you have to be receptive to some incredibly blunt jokes about celebritards and American geopolitics.

The TV and celebrity satire is expert—probably too expert for most audiences, because American Dreamz really pisses on American Idol. It’s delicious ridicule, too. Hugh Grant is Martin Tweed, the alternately unctuous and obnoxious host of the most popular show on TV, American Dreamz. Tweed is both more appealing and appalling than his real-life counterpart, Idol’s Simon Cowell, because Tweed has no illusions that the show is anything but crap. Grant, who does self-loathing as well as anyone, digs deep into this shallow, twisted clown. Watching him hate himself is a pleasure.

Tweed meets his match in contestant Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore). While Sally is as manipulative, miserable and self-obsessed as he, she has no guilt about it. Tweed is genuinely touched by this neurotic sociopath. Moore is Grant’s match, too, in creating a comic monster; in her funniest moments, as whenever Sally is dreaming up some new horror to help win the contest, Moore displays all the soul of a lizard about to devour an insect on a nearby rock.

You’d think the Iraqi suicide bomber bit wouldn’t work, but it does. (Almost too well.) Where the film goes terribly wrong is in the subplot about a dumb-as-a-box-of-hammers president (Dennis Quaid) and his Karl Rove-esque chief of staff (Willem Dafoe). Quaid and Dafoe create amusing characterizations, but the satire is flabby, off-the-mark and way too respectful of the current, real president.

Still, American Dreamz redeems itself with a final 20 minutes that are as evil as anything in Dick Cheney’s heart—only funnier. As Network proved, you can’t go wrong ending a TV satire with a nationally televised murder.

—Shawn Stone

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