by Robert Towne
Towne’s Ask the Dust is not wholly without merit—only
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
From the Id
by Paul Weitz
dark satire American Dreamz demands a lot from audiences.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that entire scenes are dreadful,
it’s worth your commitment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.