Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) is down to his last nickel, about to be evicted from his shabby hotel room in Los Angeles, subsisting on a diet of cigarettes, oranges and the occasional bottle of stolen milk. This sorry state of affairs is far from his grand vision of becoming the great American novelist, a pipedream that prompted him to move to the city of angels. Unfortunately, he's come down with a crippling case of writer's block. However, inspiration is right around the corner, in the shapely form of a bar waitress named Camilla (Salma Hayek), whom our hero tries to charm by insulting her nationality and her dirty huaraches. They engage in an odd mating dance, complete with false starts, sexual anxiety, melodrama and a steady diet of racial insults. Outwardly, they hate each other for not being the blond and blue-eyed lovers they've dreamed of, but their passion endures through affairs, disasters and nasty illnesses; not only are they gorgeous, they're both unashamed to act like desperate social climbers, even if they know the middle rungs are broken.
The script is adapted from writer John Fante's 1939 novel of the same name; Fante, a champion of the unknown and overlooked, may himself have been cast into the dustbin of history if Charles Bukowski hadn't cited him as a literary hero. That patronage helped return Fante's long-missing catalog to print, and ensured a cult following, including admirers like Robert Towne, who directed and wrote the screenplay for Ask the Dust.
In between penning classics like Chinatown, and not-so-classics like Mission Impossible 2, Towne has been trying since the '70s to launch an adaptation of Fante's novel. You'd think that sometime in those three decades he'd have found a way to translate his favorite book to the screen a bit more effectively. As great as the novel is, it's damn near plotless, amounting to the ins and outs of a slow-boiling romance; however, the film is too often left to drift by on atmosphere alone. Prose that glides across the page sometimes sounds awkward when spoken, and the story's themes of identity and desire get quickly squeezed out in favor of a straightforward love story.
Fortunately, the movie is never short on beauty, as cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has coated every shot in a rich yellow patina of Depression-era glamour. Curiously, this elegant ode to a lost Los Angeles was shot in South Africa, presumably for budgetary reasons, and because much of L.A.'s art deco facades are now obscured by Starbucks. Hayek and Farrell make for a striking couple, especially in a steamy late-night skinny-dip, though they're both at least a decade too old to play wide-eyed dreamers. If it's hard to believe that the stunning Hayek is unsure of her looks, it's downright impossible to believe that the strapping Farrell is shy and virginal.
The script is remarkably faithful to the source material, until taking a late turn for the maudlin that fouls up the ending with excessive tear-jerking. It's clear that Towne loves Fante's words and the city they mythologized, though in chasing a doomed romance he proves you can love a thing too much.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.