Is there any genre more deadly than the ''literary'' film noir? You not only have to endure all that mannered neo-'40s claptrap (murk lighting, venetian blinds, weary narration about dames), you have to watch the stuff being written about, as the author-hero sits at a typewriter and bangs out a story about how his life is turning into...the story he's writing. Save us! Over the years, some very gifted artists have shown a weakness for this brand of hardboiled meta-snooze. In the '80s, there was Wim Wenders' Hammett, and now Robert Towne, the great screenwriter and director (Without Limits, Personal Best), has coughed up Ask the Dust, in which Colin Farrell, plunked into a grimy bungalow in Depression-era Los Angeles, works so hard to speak in an American accent, and at the same time to exude the authority of an old-movie tough guy, that he winds up sounding like Gary Cooper on Xanax.
As Arturo Bandini, a second-generation Italian who dreams of becoming a famous novelist, Farrell looks just about as starchy and ill at ease as I've ever seen an actor look. And that's before he meets Salma Hayek, as a ''fiery'' Mexican waitress, and in a series of barely coherent love/hate scenes pelts her with ethnic slurs, then falls into bed with her, then tosses some more slurs. Ask the Dust is based on a celebrated novel by John Fante, and you can see why Towne, with his gothic fixation on the rotting romance of old L.A., would have been drawn to it, but the movie lacks even the misplaced fervor of obsession. It's lifeless kitsch.