I loved the Coen Brothers' dark comedy film "Barton Fink." It is a wonderfully dark and humorous look at a poor writer with a serious case of writer's block locked away in a dark and dank room, trying to find himself, humanity and words behind a typewriter. "Ask the Dust" is another tale of a lonely writer trying to find understand his purpose and trying to write words in the face of loneliness and misery. Where "Barton Fink" was a dark comedy, "Ask the Dust" is more like a dark romance. "Ask the Dusk" makes no attempt at brining a feel-good sense to the film. There are no happy endings and there is hardly a reason to smile through the film. In "Ask the Dusk," you are pulled into the misery of the Depression Era writer and asked to suffer along in his financial and emotional straits.
Colin Farrell is the male lead. The delicious Salma Hayek is the female lead. Separately, the two actors are very good in their performances. Farrell lets go of his bad boy ways and box office stance as a man of action and Salma Hayek throws away any notion of being a glamorous Hollywood star and the two embody their characters nicely. Farrell is first generation Italian writer Arturo Bandini. He leaves the sanctity of Colorado and journeys to Los Angeles to find himself a gorgeous blond haired love and success as a writer. He needs to validate himself as an American and leave behind the childhood insults of wop, dego and other racial slurs. Hayek is waitress Camilla Lopez. She is a beautiful Mexican girl who wants to be an American and have an American last name like Johnson or White.
With each being the furthest from their idea of a mate, Arturo and Camilla make no attempt to show each other affection. Instead, they both let each other know their perceived distaste for one another. Yet, in their looking for the complete opposite, Arturo and Camilla find a strong attraction for one another. Whether or not they have an attraction, the only way they can communicate is through a constant stream of insults, sarcasm and common nastiness. Arturo orders a coffee. He is delivered something that barely resembles coffee. He pours it on the table to leave the frustrated Camilla a mess. That is their first encounter.
After a few encounters, Camilla and Arturo find themselves in a very hot and cold set of romantic entanglements. One moment they are swimming nude in the ocean under the moonlight, laughing and seemingly falling for one another. The next, Camilla forces a bad situation and Arturo tries to drown her. She sneaks into his room to seduce him. Instead of love-making, a nasty domestic dispute nearly breaks out. To say their early relationship is volatile is a massive understatement. The ugliness between them gets so severe that the film becomes difficult to watch as it is an education in meanness. But sure enough, the two find true love and live together, seemingly finding true love. Nothing lasts forever and the short time where the film almost has a feel-good romance, it turns exceedingly depressing again.
I found elements I loved and elements I hated as I watched "Ask the Dust." To get what I felt was ugly in the film away first, there were two major problems I found with the film. First and foremost, the two actors never show any true chemistry. Though they treat other like absolute garbage, the actors don't appear to be appalled or upset with one another. These scenes almost come across as playful. You know they are being nasty, the words and actions are very nasty, but to look at their faces, you don't see the emotion. When the characters finally fall in love in the picture, you still get no sense of feeling between the two. They do not seem to have connected in the manner in which their lines and actions suggest. Farrell and Hayek just seem to go through the motions and never connect with a chemistry that is heavily needed for any romance film to succeed.
The second issue I have with the film is just the general ugliness of it and how it strives to be hurtful and ill-natured to its audience as well as its story. Scenes where Arturo does show to be a caring and decent individual are edited to quickly fade. The moment where Arturo romances the badly burned Vera (Idina Menzel), in a fit of showing true compassion for somebody more miserable than himself, are quickly skipped over. In fact, after this touch of tremendous kindness, the film decides to toss an ugly death into the plot. A little bit of time is spent showing Arturo helping Camilla learn to read, but even during the time they are together, the film decides to tip its hand early and make the viewer aware that Camilla is either going to die or fall into emotional disrepair. No comfort level is allowed. You get ugliness, a touch of romance and more ugliness. "Ask the Dust" truly becomes a ‘feel-bad' kind of film.
Where the film does succeed is its great film noir look at Depression Era Los Angeles. It wonderfully acts as a time capsule when rent was only five dollars a week and a cup of coffee was less than a nickel. Life was slower, less complicated and more personal. The cars, trolleys, barrooms and wardrobes were excellently done. I really enjoy period pieces and this is a great look at America over sixty years ago. The world around the main characters is dusty and run down. It is not a comfortable looking place to live in and serves nicely to give the miserable characters a miserable era and place to populate. The film thrives beautifully in showing its misery.
The other lovely thing about this film is Salma Hayek. Salma is a beautiful woman and "Ask the Dust" takes every opportunity to show us how beautiful Salma can be, at least physically. Her character is not very nice and is only looking to gain a ‘white' last name, but no matter how bad the words are that leave her lips, you cannot help but enjoy how gorgeous this Hispanic beauty is. The actress is unfortunately typecast as a Mexican in every film she does, but perhaps the best reason to watch "Ask the Dust" is to witness the fine performance of Salma. And yes, you can see Salma for quite a long time in all of her beauty.
"Ask the Dust" is a hard pill to swallow. It is meant to show the misery and ugliness of life and love. The two characters are madly in love with each other, but they make very little attempt to comfortably convey these feelings. Instead, they do their best to use hatred and ill-tempered attitudes to show loving emotion. Being a writer can be lonely and miserable. "Barton Fink" drove that point home in a dark way. "Ask the Dust" trumps "Barton Fink" in that manner and shows not only the miserable and difficult life of a writer, but it also shows how ugly love can be for not only a writer, but somebody that is hoping love is a pathway to a better life not for the feelings of it, but the image. I didn't mind watching "Ask the Dust" and I did like its look back in time at a poor and simpler America. However, I can not honestly say I enjoyed the film. I didn't dislike it, but "Ask the Dust" is an exercise in human ugliness.
The Depression Era period piece is showcased in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It is a beautifully shot film that perfectly recreates 1940s America. The film was actually shot in South Africa, but the production crew did a marvelous job of rebuilding old LA on another continent and then nicely touched up with perfectly done CGI work. The transfer is clean and without any noticeable amount of blemishes. Detail is good, though approaches being too soft in a few minor moments. Colors are bright when the browns, dull blues and grays of the era allow for a touch of red, green or yellow. Much of the film's color scheme borders on being as depressing as the storyline. Camilla's red flower she wears in her hair almost seems out of place it is so vivid in color when compared against the Depression Era backdrop. "Ask the Dust" is a beautiful film to look at and the DVD transfer does it enough justice and what weak spots that are to be found are hidden by the nature of the film's environment.
I doubt anybody is really going to believe me, but the scene where Salma Hayek is completely nude on a moonlit beach is best remembered for the crashing waves. They sounded great. The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix showcases the whitecaps in every speaker. With the volume cranked up, you can hear the water crashing all around you. The scene stands out as a solid sounding moment in a film that is heavily based on dialogue. However, ambient sound effects are brilliant at times. Whether it be crickets or busy streets, the soundtrack is surprisingly good given the source materials. Arturo's room has an old fashioned tic-tock alarm clock somewhere in his room and it brought warm memories of some ‘Baby Ben' clocks owned by both my mother and my Nan as I grew up. The ticking sounded like one of these old clocks were in my room happily ticking along. The film's musical score is good and helps keep the depressing mood of the film ever so present.
Three supplements grace "Ask the Dust" on its DVD release. Most importantly is a nice Commentary by Directory Robert Towne and Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. The two discuss the making of the film and most of it is very much based around the production of "Ask the Dust." You do get great insight into the making of the film and a few fun anecdotes and stories. Interesting tidbit: the film's shooting was plagued by cat-burglar monkeys. If you are really interested in how this film was made, it is a good listen. The next supplement is a fifteen minute long feature, The Making of Ask the Dust. It is your typical EPK documentary that is short and sweet and covers a good amount of material on the making of the film from a marketing point of view. A few nice bits of how the Depression Era was brought to life, but much of this is covered in more detail in the commentary. A Theatrical Trailer is also included.
I really like Colin Farrell as an actor and this goes beyond my half-Irish ancestry. Salma Hayek is a lovely lady that is a talented, but underused actress. When I saw that "Ask the Dust" was a Depression Era film from the writer of "Chinatown," I was eager to screen the picture. I watched the film and I understand the nature of the material and the darkness it is trying to convey. This ‘ugliness' that is delivered scene-after-scene by the picture gets tiresome before it concludes. I don't mind a dark picture and I don't mind a depressing picture, but the actors' lack of chemistry just made the ugliness forced and manufactured for the sole purpose of spoon feeding the viewer the message that this film is supposed to be depressing. I don't feel that it is a bad film and I don't feel that it is a good film. I also don't feel that it is entertaining for anything more than its wonderfully done look at Los Angeles at a time when life in general was miserable.