Robert Towne's first film in several years is a return to the lazy, adolescent Los Angeles of Chinatown, about three generations before the city's cruel heat and the drag forces of its ethnic whirlpool would cause the residents to begin crashing into each other at high velocities. The exact year of the film's events is in question, but we can deduce 1934 from an early scene in which Salma Hayek's character, a Mexican immigrant named Camilla, sits with jaw clenched in a darkened theater watching the Busby Berkeley musical Dames, as Ruby Keeler shouts out with abandon "I'm free, white and twenty-one and I love to dance!" Before the end of Ask the Dust's first reel, the heroine with the Wounded Pride will meet the hero with the Frustrated Ambition, in the form of Colin Farrell as a down-to-his-last-buffalo-nickel writer, and a tortured romance will begin. In smelting together pat cliches of ethnic tension and romantic staples that would have jerked yawns out of 1930s audiences, director Towne - this film is his reward from producer Tom Cruise for scripting Days of Thunder - has created a film that should, at least, please himself. Solipsistic vanity projects rarely disappoint the maker.