This is a decent day for reemergent filmmakers of a 1970s vintage. Sidney Lumet is back with ''Find Me Guilty," and Robert Towne returns with ''Ask the Dust," another piquant romance between Towne and Los Angeles.
After decades of wanting to, Towne has adapted the movie from John Fante's Depression-era novel about a struggling Italian-American writer and his love affair with a Mexican waitress. Towne wrote ''The Last Detail," ''Chinatown," and co-wrote ''Shampoo," three flawless, cynical Hollywood movies about men who lose against one establishment or another. ''Ask the Dust" finds the 71-year-old filmmaker in a more playful and nostalgic mood.
The movie is set in the city's Bunker Hill neighborhood and tells the story of a financially and creatively destitute novelist named Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell). He wants to write great, lusty books but lacks the real sexual experience to fill the pages clogging his typewriter. He's been sitting around his room in a shabby tenement, smoking in a sleeveless white T-shirt. According to the notices being slipped under his door, Bandini is four months behind on the rent (that's $24). In the amusing narration that gives the movie the snap of hard-bitten noir, the blocked Arturo explains, ''My landlady was getting more writing done than I was."
Bandini heads to his neighborhood diner, where, in a terrific scene, he promptly insults his server (Salma Hayek), her sandals, her intelligence, her cultural heritage, and her coffee. But he's obviously smitten. He finds out her name, Camilla, and leaves her his lone published story, something called ''The Little Dog Laughed." When he asks her whether she liked it, she says she liked the dog, which of course is not actually in the story. (Camilla is illiterate.) But they embark on a stormy relationship of invaluable mutual benefit anyway. He helps her read. She gives him sex and worldliness.
Cosmopolitanism comes a lot easier after the critic and editor H.L. Mencken, to whom Bandini has rightly built a shrine, throws him a bone, publishing a couple of his stories and encouraging him to keep writing. There's a lovely shot of Farrell, after one of Bandini's paydays, stepping out into the breezy evening in a new suit. The movie is full of that sort of handsomeness. Its 1930s setting is vivid and authentic, and nearly every interior shot looks tea-stained, as a 70-year-old photograph might.
These pristine flourishes are at odds with the discrimination and identity crises that roil the movie's characters. Towne is adamant about re-creating Fante's ethnically fraught universe. Bandini and Camilla have a few racist flare-ups, but as the couple settles into a true emotional and sexual relationship, their bigotry deepens into a fear of not being tolerated. In a touching scene, the two discuss marriage, and Camilla tells him, ''I don't want to go from Camilla Lopez to Camilla Bandini. It's not much of an improvement." Towne sees a lot of modern America in Fante's book.
But after an hour or so, ''Ask the Dust" seems to have said everything, and the air starts to seep out of its hermetic atmosphere. Towne's fanciful, evocative conjuring of time and place turns sleepy; then, after one character lets out an ominous cough during a sex scene, trite. It was about that moment that I started to mind that Farrell and Hayek are miscast.
Hayek is too seasoned to be playing such a naif. Farrell looks thin and boyish. (The tattoos on his arm have been covered in makeup that leaves the impression that moss is growing on his biceps.) He does all he can with this enjoyably weird performance (eyebrows cocked in confusion, lots of fey movement) to encourage you to see the virgin in this man.
No matter what, Towne believes in these two. He believes in the crude life lessons in Fante's book, too. And while that's not enough to save this movie, his faith is enough to keep you believing in him.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.