Lynch's Latest is Wild at the Same Old Heart
Deconstruction is seldom pretty, especially when self-inflicted. A tardy, unwise venture into the self-reflexive films-about-Hollywood sweepstakes, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive idles between the pleasurable, if commercially unviable, abstractions of Lost Highway and the cult accessibility of Blue Velvet. Unfortunately, there's nothing scampering down Mulholland Drive that we haven't seen before. Lynch's grab bag of ironic nightmare effects, Helmut Newton-esque twisto-sex, and dream-logic plotting, it turns out, loses its charm on multiple replay.
After an encouragingly vibrant title sequence of 1940s teens bopping to big-band jazz, the film (also written by Lynch) starts talking to itself. Backseat driving on the titular serpentine Hollywood hilltop highway, a dark-haired femme fatale (Laura Harring, gamely filling the hot 'n' gloomy brunette position previously filled by Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet and Lara Flynn Boyle in Twin Peaks) asks an unseen driver, "What are you doing? We don't stop here!"
Oh, yes they do, as a car full of joyriding teens smashes into her limo. Crawling from the wreckage with a head wound and amnesia, à la Sherilyn Fenn's crash victim in Wild at Heart, she meanders away and takes refuge in an old-school Hollywood apartment akin to the servant quarters of Sunset Boulevard.
Meanwhile, a perky blond actress named Betty (Naomi Watts, filling the Laura Dern Wild at Heart/Velvet "good girl" archetype) arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of stardom, accompanied by chortling parents straight out of a John Waters put-down of suburbia. (Mom and Dad later turn gratuitously sinister and attack their offspring for reasons known only to Lynch's subconscious.)
Betty's Hollywood apartment turns out to be the same one occupied by the amnesiac older brunette, who Betty finds showering. Spying a poster for the Rita Hayworth noir movie Gilda on the wall, the brunette adopts that actress' first name. Being good at heart, Betty immediately warms to the distressed naked woman, and the two search for clues to Rita's previous identity.
A few blocks and a subplot away, smartass hipster director Adam (Justin Theroux) is contacted by agents of an ominously Godlike, wheelchair-bound old man, Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson). Roque is another in the long line of Lynch puppet-masters that runs from the "Man in the Planet" of 1977's Eraserhead to the "Mystery Man" of '97's Lost Highway. Roque employs minions such as the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery) to force Adam to cast Betty in his new film. Amid assorted weird digressions (the film's best stuff), Betty and Rita start wearing matching wigs and drift into a lesbian affair that leads to extreme identity dissolution. Meanwhile, the plot simultaneously turns the screws on its increasingly complex mystery story while devolving into picturesque but incomprehensible surrealism. And then it's over. Or, more accurately, it simply stops.
As in all his work, Lynch remains fixated on the same displaced parental figures that power his best films with a queasily eroticized, inchoate rage. Such mangling of traditional familial roles can be terrifying (Dennis Hopper's deranged kidnapper mewling "Baby wants to fuck!" to mother-figure/SM enthusiast Rossellini in Blue Velvet) or artfully grotesque (Diane Ladd's character lipsticking her entire face red when her daughter has an extra-familial relationship in Wild at Heart). But viewed through the automatically self-reflexive lens of a film about the act of making films, Lynch's already irony-drenched themes of sexual power plays, metaphorical incest, and general identity agita lose their horrific libidinal charge. And for all the film's references and allusions to film noir, Lynch seems disinterested in anything beyond indulging in the genre's trappings (dumb thugs, chiaroscuro lighting, paranoid atmospherics, troublesome women in great clothes, etc.).
Still, Lynch periodically scores in his peculiar way. There's a brilliant toss-off scene in which Betty auditions for a role and is paired up with a "suave" older actor (Chad Everett). The director's fascination with texture--Everett's leathery tanned skin against Betty's smooth china white--provides a delight of detached visual abstraction, and Betty's just-acting role reversal from victim to pissed-off, kittenish seducer would be fabulous were it in another movie. And there's a hilarious bit of pure slapstick involving a killer thwarted by a very fat woman, a janitor, a vacuum cleaner, and a car alarm. But it's easy to imagine everything that's effective about Mulholland Drive as a series of clips in a future Lynch retrospective.
Most strange (relatively speaking) for a guy who is an undisputed master of the marriage of sound and vision, Mulholland is Lynch's most musically nondescript film. Amid forgettable incidental tunes, Angelo Badalamenti's score only appears sporadically to add specks of generic Lynchian melancholy. But the film's core problem stands in stark relief when a glammed-up version of Carmen Miranda croons a Latin-inflected take on Roy Orbison's "Crying." When Lynch tapped Orbison's "In Dreams" to underscore the dark passions of Blue Velvet, it was simultaneously ironic, scary, and chock full of yearning. But like most of Mulholland Drive, the Orbison vignette seems just another example of the director replaying one of his favorite bits for frustratingly obscure reasons.