Robert Towne is a Tinseltown titan, his screenwriting reputation built on the triptych of Chinatown (1974), directed by Roman Polanski, and The Last Detail and Shampoo (1973 and 1975), directed by Hal Ashby. But Towne has also had his share of failures. Some were partly due to egos beyond his control (Days of Thunder), collaborators out of their element (Love Affair, directed by TV one-hit wonder Glenn Gordon Caron, of "Moonlighting"), or studio executives out of their minds (The Two Jakes, a sad, failed trip back to Chinatown). Yet some were mostly his own fault-and you can toss Ask the Dust into the cutout bin with Personal Best and Tequila Sunrise, both of which he likewise wrote and directed. It takes a truly singular...well, vision, let's take a gritty, lyrical book about small-timers' desperate fears and hopes in Depression-era L.A., and turn it into a Harlequin Romance.

Colin Farrell plays young Italian-American writer Arturo Bandini, the semi-autobiographical alter ego of the late novelist John Fante; the character stars in three other books, including Wait Until Spring, Bandini, made into a 1989 film starring Joe Mantegna. There's no one more cynical than a failed idealist, and Bandini, stuck in a hole-in-the-wall and literally down to his last nickel, has the familiar, self-flagellating fear of many writers that maybe they'll really never write the Great American Novel. The movie's early scenes are lovely and fable-like, while unromantically offering about as true a depiction as any of what it's like to be a fledgling author.

The unromantic becomes the über-romantic when Arturo, who dreams of marrying up with a golden blonde heiress, meets Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), his server at a dive where he's spending that aforesaid last nickel. You've heard the term "meet cute"? These two meet coarse. Camilla also wants to marry up, and so neither plans to fall for the other. Inexplicably they do-over a steady exchange of sadomasochistic verbal nastiness, empty emotional pyrotechnics, and ultimately a sex scene more comic than carnal. (Follow the bouncing ass!) Supporting characters float in and disappear without rhyme, reason or resolution-the great Donald Sutherland, as an aged alcoholic, embodying Arturo's fear of his own possible future, occasionally walks through the door like Kramer on "Seinfeld," delivers a couple of lines, and leaves. Here and elsewhere, it's clear a lot of scenes wound up on the modern virtual version of the cutting-room floor.

It's also clear a lot of the wrong ones got cut. Arturo and Camilla at one point settle in at a picturesque beachfront cottage while he writes his novel. And if this movie hadn't screamed "chick flick" before, it does so in a sequence where Arturo leaves the little nearby general store with that grocery bag: You've seen it in a hundred films and TV shows-with the regulation baguette sticking out the top, and the stringy green end of fresh carrots next to it. And then, then, ohmigod, we see Camilla by a sign reading "Puppies for sale." Not long afterward, one of our lovers coughs a stage cough you could read in the back rafters. It can't be. Can it? But it is: It's the fatal cough of Terminal Movie Disease!

Fittingly, the movie is shot in golden earth tones by the great Caleb Deschanel, and filled with everyday details that make the period feel vibrant and real, albeit a bit stagy in the street scenes. There's a harrowing earthquake that jolts you with the sight of a concrete sidewalk barreling toward Bandini like an underground Graboid in Tremors. And we get to see Salma Hayek in skintight dresses and extremely nude in a skinny-dipping sequence-not rare sights, granted, but never boring nonetheless.

-Frank Lovece