Unlike David Lynch’s warm and sensitive 1999 film The Straight Story, his latest, Mulholland Drive, is trademark Lynch: strange, seductive, perverse, cryptic, disturbing, violent, wacky and impervious to mainstream demands. I didn’t mind that the film teases and blindsides the audience. After all, Lynch is just as much a mad prankster as he is a brilliant stylist. I also didn’t mind that the film didn’t make much sense. Lynch likes to dabble in dream logic and we all know how hard it is to control our own dreams. My biggest gripe is that this open-ended noir mystery, dark comedy and indictment of Hollywood as morally bankrupt Dream Factory should have felt fresher and been more fun.
The film began and was subsequently rejected as a TV series pilot for ABC. It was a sort of Twin Peaks (for a time, the most bizarre, cunning weekly show on television) set in La La Land. After further financing was secured, Lynch turned his teleplay into nearly 2-1/2 hours of R-rated dementia and enigma. The conversion left only thin sketches of several characters (The Cowboy, a partially paralyzed dwarf, a psychic, a bungling hit man). Also, numerous scenes now feel padded and ponderous, and several meticulously engineered jokes fall flat.
The story, or at least what temporarily feels like a story, begins as a voluptuous brunette (Laura Elena Harring) in a black cocktail dress rides in a limousine. Her driver stops the car on the shoulder of a rural stretch of road overlooking Los Angeles. A man from the front passenger seat is about to shoot her when a car crashes into their vehicle. The fortunate femme fatale, with high heels intact, then stumbles down the hillside in an amnesiac stupor.
The next day perky, naïve blonde Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Los Angeles by bus from Deep River, Ontario, spewing cornball conversation and reeking of Doris Day virtue. She makes her way to her aunt’s garden courtyard apartment and finds the brunette in her auntie’s shower. Betty, a wannabe actress, soon realizes her visitor is in trouble and, with Nancy Drew-like enthusiasm, offers to help her uncover her true identity and the reason she is carrying huge stacks of cash in her purse. A subplot also unfolds as a cocky director (Justin Theroux) is forced by mobsters to use a particular blonde as his leading actress in his latest production and catches his wife in bed with the pool maintenance man (Billy Ray Cyrus).
Betty and her new friend’s search leads to a corpse, steamy lesbian sex and a weird performance art nightclub called Silencio. Betty then takes a sort of magical Alice-in-Wonderland tumble into a small blue box that takes us into an alternate world where the cast members become new characters or establish new relationships with each other.
Mulholland Drive is a moody, meandering puzzle about female exploitation, innocence, sexual awakening, paranoia, peril, contagious emotions and the illusions of cinema. Lynch not only plays with the notion that dreams are reprocessed reality, but also reprocesses those dreams. He returns to the surrealism and hallucinogenic nightmares that made 1986’s Blue Velvet such a unique experience, and the fixations, blatant voyeurism (the camera follows Watts’ arm down into her pants while she cries and masturbates) and transmutations of Lost Highway.
The film contains cinema’s funniest amnesia/sex joke. Other highlights include a version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” sung in Spanish, a surreal jitterbug fest under the film’s opening credits and an audition in which Betty unleashes her sexual power on a has-been actor (Chad Everett) and a botched assassination involving a faked suicide, vacuum cleaner and smoke detector. It also includes short, mutated riffs on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella and the Pink Panther.
In Mulholland Drive, dreams, nightmares and reality intersect and maybe even commingle. When Betty says, “I’m in this dream place,” she may be referring to not only Los Angeles, but to her own station in the film. It’s one of several clues in a film in which the glass definitely feels half empty.