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Murder Slim Review: ASK THE DUST

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Boy, it's hard with movie adaptions of books that you love. There's a constant voice saying: "Well, why did they change that? That was great in the book!" ASK THE DUST is a prime example of this.

ASK THE DUST really isn't as bad as many people think. Robert Towne knows (or, at least, knew) how to write a script. He came up with CHINATOWN and a couple of lesser known classics THE YAZUKA and THE PARALLAX VIEW. And although he's not known as a director (PERSONAL BEST, anyone?) this is a nice looking movie with moody and beautifully lit shots of 1930s' Los Angeles. It's also understandable that you have to change a book when you adapt it. Some things don't play visually and you also have to condense a lot to fit under two hours. FACTOTUM bears little resemblance to Bukowski's book, but it is an excellent little movie.

The problem is, even if we forget the great source material, ASK THE DUST is very so-so. It's a strangely gentle film, veering way towards the romance genre. Colin Farrell's Arturo Bandini is mostly a whiny putz, and Salma Hayek's Camilla is ramped up so much that she dominates the film as much as she dominates Arturo.

Hayek is as great looking as ever - and Towne joins our darker sides by getting her to frolic in the waves - but it's a weird choice narrative-wise and one that speaks of the intended audience of the film. Hayek is annoyingly "sassy" and more of a product of mid-2000's uber-feminism. I imagine Hollywood execs laboured over how to make ASK THE DUST marketable for a mainstream audience, and ASK THE DUST is clearly aimed at women. Farrell was considered a heartthrob in the mid 2000s - all muscles and wry smiles - so also gone is the vast majority of Bandini's pugnacity, the memorable open ending of the book, and the venom of Fante's writing.

It's hard to film a movie that is primarily about writing. But both Bent Hamer (FACTOTUM) and Barbet Schroeder (BARFLY) deftly sidestepped it with voiceovers. In ASK THE DUST we get some damn tedious shots of Bandini at the typewriter. This only makes Farrell's Arturo seem more of an introspective mope and even more of a drip over Carmilla.

I don't want to hammer the film. The Vera Rivkin scene - a real understated highlight of the book too - is handled beautifully. And it's hard to ignore the richness of some of the images and locations. You also feel Towne was on a hiding to nothing trying to convert the brilliance of Fante's prose and turn it into a mainstream film.

However, the most damning thing is that even those who haven't read the book would still find it simply an ok movie. Even worse, I doubt any of them sought out the book afterwards. And that's a crying shame.

Review by Steve Hussy