Lost in the funhouse

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive tweaks reality, while David Mamet pulls a fast one with Heist

LYNCHIAN HERO Justin Theroux plays a geeky movie director in David Lynch’s latest cinematic puzzle, <i>Mulholland Drive</i>.

LYNCHIAN HERO Justin Theroux plays a geeky movie director in David Lynch’s latest cinematic puzzle, Mulholland Drive.

Rated 4.0

Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s latest venture into the pleasures of getting lost, is a seductive puzzle.

How much you like this and several other Lynch films may depend a lot on how willing you are to let go of the desire for clear explanations, but don’t take that as a sign that the new Lynch movie ever stops making sense.

Like Eraserhead and Lost Highway before it, this film has the logic of nightmare to it, and in some of its best moments it is “making sense” and confounding us at the same time.

A blonde and a brunette (Noami Watts and Laura Elena Harring, respectively) are more or less the center of what begins to emerge as a surreally stylized foray into Hollywoodland. At the outset, the blonde is Betty, a Midwesterner freshly arrived in the search for stardom, and the brunette is an amnesiac survivor of a bizarre auto crash on the famous ridgeline road of the title. A chance meeting, bizarre in its own way, brings the two together, and soon the aspiring starlet is trying to help the amnesiac solve the mystery of her identity.

But Mulholland Drive, as it almost goes without saying, is no conventional mystery story. Even before the two women’s identities start morphing into something else, Lynch’s film is saturated in spooky premonitions, extravagant digressions and alternate stories. The largest of the subplots involves a geeky movie director (Justin Theroux) who is having big troubles at home (unfaithful wife) and at work (gangsterish financial backers are strong-arming a key casting decision).

The mysteries of the blonde and the brunette and the semi-satirical travails of the movie director combine with much else in the way of Lynchian arcana, and the result is one of the more richly endowed cinematic funhouses that this quirky auteur has produced. The strangeness multiplies—a mysterious blue box, a spookily menacing character called the Cowboy, a spectacular screen test, a farcical hit-man episode, a lesbian love scene, a rotting corpse in a bungalow, a dual role for an old-time movie star (Ann Miller)—and the nightmare seems to turn itself inside out.

The film is puzzling enough that I’m curious to see whether it will expand or diminish on second viewing. But so much of it is fascinating that any first viewing has a good chance of being rewarding, even if we don’t know exactly why.

Heist, the latest David Mamet venture into the territory of schemers and scam artists, is something of a scam itself. It hijacks the audience with a good cast and an abundance of slick action, gets balled up in its own cleverness, and then leaves you feeling a little like you’ve had your pocket picked.

Gene Hackman plays an ultra-professional high-end thief who decides it’s time to retire and leave the country after surveillance cameras catch him without a mask during an elaborate jewel heist. But his fence and bankroller (Danny DeVito) wants him to follow through on a second job before delivering the payoff.

The second heist is an on-again, off-again affair made more complicated by internal squabbling and the cocky intrusions of DeVito’s hostile nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell). And aging Joe Moore (Hackman) has loyal but less than perfect support from his team of old pros (Delroy Lindo and Mamet regular Ricky Jay) and his mercurial tough-broad wife (Rebecca Pigeon).

The heist sequences themselves are nifty genre pieces with plenty of brisk detail and zigzagging suspense. But Mamet’s story is so overloaded with double crosses, secret agendas, and seemingly gratuitous treachery that most of the characters cease to matter much. The tension of compromised relationships gets dissipated into indifference and routine.

Hackman, Lindo, and Pigeon all give sharp performances, but Hackman and Lindo get undercut by a plot that dwindles toward a hollow victory. And Pigeon is superb as a punkish femme fatale, but her character’s double-dealing is presented as a mystery but comes across, cumulatively, as fickleness of perverse and nearly meaningless dimensions.