There are all kinds of stories about Los Angeles, that city of broken dreams, terminal sunshine and important car crashes. Among the greatest is "Ask the Dust," an autobiographical novel by John Fante about his hungry years in the city when he lived on pennies, oranges and splenetic ambition. Born in Denver, Fante moved to Los Angeles where, in between novels and stories that deserve to be remembered, he wrote films that are now mostly forgotten. Charles Bukowski considered him a personal saint and in the 1970's helped rescue him from obscurity. Another disciple of sorts is the screenwriter and sometime director Robert Towne, who has turned Fante's glorious howl into a requiem for a city and those who escape its gilded clutches.
Like Fante, Mr. Towne knows plenty about Los Angeles Hollywood, too, as his résumé, with its official and unofficial triumphs, attests: "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Last Detail," "Chinatown" and "Shampoo." There have been turkeys, of course, and since the 1970's he has ridden out the changes in Hollywood with mixed results, working on blockbusters with Jerry Bruckheimer. It is in this light that his desire to bring "Ask the Dust," a cri de coeur from a young author bursting with passion and purpose, carries such aching poignancy. Now 71, Mr. Towne has kept in the game partly through playing by rules that have not necessarily been good for his art. One imagines that, as was true of Fante, who sometimes put Hollywood before his own work, it hasn't always been easy.
First published in 1939 when Fante was 30, "Ask the Dust" recounts the "lean days of determination" of his favorite alter ego, the preening and furiously proud writer Arturo Bandini, played in the film with surprising conviction by Colin Farrell. Barely published, filled with hope, engorged with rage at the world, at himself the 20-year-old Arturo lusts for fame, women and something to eat besides the oranges that make his gums bleed. With a photograph of his mentor, the holy father of American letters, H. L. Mencken, pinned to his wall, he greets the city like a ravenous lover. ("Los Angeles," Fante implores, "give me some of you!") That the city ignores his advances only enrages Arturo further, deepening his hate, strengthening his love.
"Ask the Dusk" was written when Fante was still struggling, and you feel the urgency of the struggle in each line. The film has none of that urgency, despite some sexy thrashing about by Mr. Farrell and his fine co-star, Salma Hayek, who plays the flirty Mexican waitress Camilla. Their affair consumes much more of the film than it does the novel, which is partly a concession to the reality that all those pages crammed with Arturo's thoughts, observations, digressions and dreams wouldn't easily translate to the screen. But the affair works to another of the story's purposes, too. Camilla isn't just another Angeleno who feeds the fires of Arturo's imagination as does an overwrought Jewish woman, Vera (Idina Menzel), with whom he has a singularly depressing affair she is where he finds a sense of self and belonging.
If this version feels considerably less urgent that Fante's, it is largely because of the differences in age and circumstance of the two storytellers when each told the tale. It's instructive that while some of the exteriors have the hard light of a cloudless Los Angeles day, Mr. Towne and his cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, imbue other scenes with a honeyed glow reminiscent of one of the city's spectacular sunsets. (The film was actually shot almost entirely in South Africa, a stunning stand-in from beach to desert.) The lighting takes the edge off the story, but Mr. Towne is more a captive to romance than a slave to nostalgia. And, more than anything else, "Ask the Dust" feels like a compendium of desires for a city, for a woman, for youth that now warm rather than burn.
After circling each other like famished lions, exchanging ethnic slurs and longing looks, Arturo and Camilla decamp to the beach where, during a dreamy interlude much expanded from the novel, they find temporary refuge. When Arturo first checked into his hotel on Bunker Hill, his landlady (the excellent Eileen Atkins) sharply explained that she doesn't rent to Mexicans or Jews. Long before Los Angeles pasted on its permanent smiley face, such casually open racism was an everyday reality. It burns Arturo, who rages at the Smiths and the Joneses who reject him because of his Italian blood, at himself (he obsessively repeats his full name like a curse) and at the dark-haired woman next to him. In the land of the lotus-eaters, he chokes.
Spleen keeps Arturo going as much as hope and oranges, and Mr. Ferrell, who can sometimes seem lost in his own movies, invests the character with both focus and tenderness. Although Arturo's internal engine runs slower on the screen than it does on the page, Mr. Towne has retained the period flavor of his speech wonderfully well. He lifts words and ideas straight from the novel, gently tempering Arturo's extravagant flights of fancy so they sound more naturalistic coming out of his star's mouth. Timeless in its way, "Ask the Dust" is also very much of its specific moment, as evidenced by the lovingly recreated cheap beachfront cottages, the rumbling streetcars and the Japanese fruit vendor who keeps Arturo's belly full. The unpaved roads fill the air with dust and don't all yet lead straight to Hollywood.
Eventually, of course, they will. By the time Fante wrote "Ask the Dusk," he had already started working in Hollywood, which helped him out of poverty, though at personal cost. It's hard not to think that this partly explains why Mr. Towne wanted to tell this particular story, to summon up this dreamland of old Hollywood and lost Los Angeles. The beauty of Fante's prose has its attractions, of course, as does angry youth, but what matters here isn't simply and only "Ask the Dust," but also its postscript, the one about a writer whose best work transcended all the compromises, the periods of neglect and wild contradictions. This is only Mr. Towne's fourth film as a director, but after a life of providing beautiful words for other people to say, this was clearly one story he very much needed to tell himself.
"Ask the Dust" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It contains salty language and nudity.
Ask the Dust
Opens today nationwide.
Directed by Robert Towne; written by Mr. Towne, based on the novel by John Fante; director of photography, Caleb Deschanel; edited by Robert K. Lambert; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Don Granger and Jonas McCord; released by Paramount Classics. Running time: 117 minutes.