written and directed by David Lynch with Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, and Justin Theroux opens Oct. 12 at Guild 45 and Meridian
JUST WHEN YOU thought that David Lynch might be following the safe, Disney, G-rated route after 1999's The Straight Story, this long-delayed made-for-TV project signals a bracing, entertaining return to form. Though Lynch might squirm to be considered an 魩nence grise among American filmmakers, 25 years have passed since Eraserhead, and his baroque work now bears as much of a recognizably distinct artistic stamp as that of his contemporaries Scorsese and Spielberg.
Fortunately, Lynch still stands apart from the more commercial appeal of his fellow boomer auteurs. Instead of pumping out WWII-generation hagiographies or tired Italian-American crime sagas, he continues to plumb the depths of his own homegrown imagination. And what a cheerfully twisted place that is. It's a relief to return to David Lynch Land after the cancellation of his 1990-91 Twin Peaks series. Nothing has changed, yet everything is different.
For starters, we're in the big, bad city of Los Angeles now, where cartoonishly naive blond Betty arrives seeking a career in show business. As played by Naomi Watts, she's just too damn sweet and gullible to be believed, especially when dark-haired amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring) takes refuge in her elegant old borrowed Hollywood apartment. While Betty's character harkens to the golden past, Rita is more the hardened, dazed survivor of the harsh, merciless present. They're soul mates, yin and yang, id and ego, innocence and experience. Seeming strangers, they also appear almost unnaturally close. What's their actual relationship?
Feverishly wrapping itself in tinsel-town clich鳬 Mulholland Drive signals early that Betty's story is unfolding in at least two time periods. Appropriate to Lynch's fluid sense of temporality, doddering old Ann Miller plays the landlady to our unlikely roommates; it's like Beverly Hills 90210 meets Laura. When are we, exactly?
THE FUN TO Mulholland is sorting out such questions like a noir detective. Some may look to a jaded young director (Justin Theroux) for answers. Bad idea. Brandishing a golf club like a cane, possessed of a Michael Bay-like smirk, Adam's as suspect as his showbiz surroundings. Yet his arrogance evaporates when nefarious Hollywood powers—manifested by Dan Hedaya and Lynch's signature dwarf!--take control of his movie.
Mulholland initially alternates between Adam's bewilderment and Betty and Rita's sleuthing through the city. The former sequences are like a surreal, Lynchian spin on Get Shorty. "It's no longer your film," Hedaya menacingly tells the director, and it's impossible to not read Lynch's own career difficulties—e.g. working with despotic producer Dino De Laurentiis on Dune—into the story. Ordered to cast an unknown actress called Camilla by a Tom Mix-like cowboy, Adam can barely contain his laughter; it's ludicrous to him-and to us, as well.
Meanwhile, like some Nancy Drew heroine, Betty begins to raise alarm bells with her guileless optimism. (When she gets to an audition, however, a very different side of her personality emerges.) Similar to Laura Dern's character in Blue Velvet, she's a stereotype that Lynch deploys to deliberate effect. Hemmed in by darkness, her perkiness begins to look like desperation—or imagination, really. As she delves into a bizarre Hollywood underworld, the latent cinematic tension between appearance and reality wells up to engulf her.
Originally conceived as a TV series, Mulholland has been compressed and re-edited into a jumbled 146-minute glossary of David Lynch types and situations. Right down to the Angelo Badalamenti score, the film feels familiar, yet refreshingly so. Unlike the exhaustion of Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead) or Spielberg (Amistad), there's a giddy vitality to this pastiche. The movie dares to be silly—and frequently is—while practically begging repeat viewings to unravel its plot.
What a pity that Mulholland never made it to the airwaves, where it would've provided welcome relief to the Survivor-inspired spate of programming that now gluts our channels—the ultimate in unreality TV.