Towne’s film is a noble but ultimately flawed attempt to adapt author John Fante’s highly regarded 1930s novel (the screenwriter discovered it and befriended the author while researching Chinatown and spent over three decades trying to bring it to the screen). It tells the tale of wannabe writer and second generation Italian American Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) who comes to the sunny Sodom-by-the-Sea to seek fame and fortune by penning the Great American Novel and collides with a headstrong sharp-tongued Mexican waitress Camilla (Salma Hayek)--a far cry from the beautiful blonde of his romantic fantasies. But she too isn’t looking for an Italian--she longs to marry a WASP and shed her Latin identity. The two tangle--and become entangled--with each other as they try to make their dreams come true in the misnamed City of Angels. It’s a potent premise--a racially charged romance set against a vivid Day of the Locust-style backdrop--that gets off to a stylish start but quickly gets bogged down in a morass of too-familiar oh-so-soap opera sentiment. Looking perfectly fit for a fedora Colin Farrell attacks his role with an abundance of passion wit and verve and the strength of his performance carries the film through many of its rockier trails. As well Salma Hayek practically radiates sensuality AND a keen intelligence in one of most fully realized performances to date. The two strike some very palpable sparks--fireworks even--during both their amusing verbal sparring matches and their highly charged sex scenes (yes both her caliente curves and his bad boy beefcake are on full--and full frontal--display to strong effect). Both performers lift the film to heights it might otherwise not have achieved but are let down by the film’s lugubrious pacing and pat uninvolving third act. Idina Menzel (of Rent fame) pockets nearly every scene she’s in as an eccentric woman obsessed with Farrell’s character delivering a performance that deftly spins its initial quirky comic appeal on a dime into a more moving note of tragedy and sympathy. Towne’s abilities behind the camera--in films such as Tequila Sunrise and Without Limits--have often taken a back seat to his stellar reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest living screenwriters. Still his directorial gifts are considerable as he proves again in Ask the Dust. He adroitly visualizes the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles circa 1939 with the aid of a masterful set built in the unlikely locale of South Africa and his lengthy rehearsal process and trust of actors helped concoct great chemistry between Hayek and Farrell. Where he really trips up is in the editing: the film plays like a screenwriter’s full version if his own final draft. The lack of nips and tucks in the cutting room slows the pace and progression to a fault resulting in scenes that play too long and turgidly. After the too-slow march to the inevitable end you’ll feel like you’re the one who should be brushing the dust off as you leave the theater.
Brace yourself Dr. Laura. This clueless teen queen (Natasha Lyonne) has it all: good looks a football captain boyfriend and a popular pair of pom-poms. But her candy-colored world crumbles when her panicked parents stage an intervention after finding a Melissa Etheridge poster that leads them to conclude she's a friend of Ellen. After being carted off to an anti-gay rehab camp for teens the perky princess must choose between the straight and narrow-minded or the love that dare not speak its name.
The quirky ensemble casting is half this film's fun. Lyonne is charming as the pepster tempted by T&A and she sparks onscreen with swanky and sexy co-star Clea DuVall who plays the butch femme fatale suitor (alarmingly reminiscent of Nancy McKeon's Jo from "The Facts of Life.") Drag queen supreme RuPaul is unrecognizable out of his high heels and even higher blond wig wearing a "Straight is Great" T-shirt as a macho militant ex-gay counselor. Cathy Moriaty is sweetly sinister as the homophobic headmistress and Mink Stole steals scenes as the uptight upright meddling mom.
Kudos to Jamie Babbit for tackling this hot-potato topic but this well-intentioned film too often misses its mark turning potentially comical scenes into unbearably awkward moments. Babbit fouls when tugging at the heartstrings but hits home runs when the humor is at its broadest.