John Fante's novel Ask the Dust, published in 1939 and all but forgotten till its 1980 reissue with a Charles Bukowski foreword, is very much a work of thinly veiled autobiography; only the names have been changed to protect the guilty. Its protagonist, a struggling writer named Arturo Bandini, shared with his creator the back story of having been born to immigrant parents in Colorado, and the shame and bullying that came with carrying a name that ends in a vowel; and like Arturo, Fante moved to the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles in order to write in isolation, to carve for himself a career that would make him the equal of a Dreiser or a Faulkner. Arturo, who appeared in four novels spread across several decades, and Fante, who died in 1983 after years of blindness caused by diabetes, would become minor sensations, but never meet their peers on literature's Mount Olympus. It is hard to reach so glorious a peak when you're comfortably ensconced in the squalor of the valley, after all.
As much as this is Fante's tale, so too is it Robert Towne's story has been, in fact, since the early 1970s, when the screenwriter stumbled across Ask the Dust while researching his script for Chinatown and barged his way into the reclusive author's life, demanding to turn the book into a film. Towne, among the back-lot rebels who redefined screenwriting in the 1970s with his Holy Trinity of The Last Detail, Chinatown and Shampoo, would spend decades trying to adapt Ask the Dust and other Fante material, finding few takers interested in financing so grim a tale about frustration, anguish, loss and occasional triumphs blown to hell in the unforgiving Santa Ana winds. Ask the Dust finds an unlikely backer, then, in Towne's pal Tom Cruise, for whom making this serves as some kind of penance for dishing out a third Mission: Impossible.
Towne's affection for the material and its maker is plainly evident in his adaptation, which is only his fourth directorial effort and easily his best (though Tequila Sunrise remains an underrated entry on his estimable filmography). He is faithful to the novel to a point, but also more forgiving toward Arturo, played by Colin Farrell, than even Fante was. Hence, he is no longer a lumbering virgin (perhaps because no one would buy it from Farrell) or a petulant ruffian prone to throwing tantrums, but a movie-star-handsome, desperately sensitive artist trapped in a dusty place populated by mongrels who do not appreciate his estimable talents. Towne has even bestowed upon Arturo a great champion in H.L. Mencken, voiced here by Time film critic Richard Schickel, who writes Arturo that great authors "make more out of less." (In the novel, Arturo's benefactor is an editor named Hackmuth though Fante and Mencken were pen pals whose correspondence has been collected in hardback.) Towne has imprinted himself upon the material to such an extent that Fante almost exists in the margins.
That's clear especially in his treatment of the relationship between Arturo and a waitress named Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), who works the nearby greasy spoon and treats the writer with contempt; she either wants to screw him or kill him, and usually appears to be of both mindsets at the same time. In the novel, the two lovers enjoy scant moments of affection; their first stab at lovemaking in the sand turns into a clumsy, aborted tussle. But Towne excises that moment while prolonging others, including a retreat to a beach house that consumes almost the final third of the film and turns the movie, however briefly, into a conventional romance too conventional, in fact, as Arturo teaches Camilla to read, like she's some south-of-the-border Eliza Doolittle in need of grooming and taming. It's a welcome respite, this idyllic getaway drenched in sunset yellows and tidal-wave blues, but also somehow condescending; Towne has sapped Camilla of her dignity and turned her into a muse in need of an education.
But if there's a larger flaw in the adaptation, it's the colossal distance Towne creates between the screen and the audience the result, no doubt, of his having to re-create old Los Angeles on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa, with computer-generated images filling in the blanks. The actors, among them Donald Sutherland as Arturo's bedraggled neighbor and Idina Menzel as the scarred woman Arturo beds in order to prove himself a kind and noble man, look as though they're strolling not through real streets but sets populated by extras who've wandered in from the catering truck. And Farrell's performance possesses a touch too many mannerisms on loan from Tyrone Power and Clark Gable; you can almost hear the gears turning in his head each time he cocks his head or raises an eyebrow in homage. Ask the Dust, sadly, is the work of a man making less out of more.