In Overdrive

David Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive' is a ride into La-La-Land where dreams don't come true.

October 19, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is a dizzying - sometimes frustrating - marvel of moviemaking instinct and ingenuity. In this expansion of an aborted TV pilot, Lynch succeeds where Fellini didn't in his late work: He creates a phantasmagoric landscape, fills it with eccentric, visually striking characters and uses them to generate compelling conflicts and emotions.

Lynch's "dream place" is made up of timeworn pockets of L.A., from a Hollywood Babylon apartment complex to a stucco studio peopled by has-beens and never-weres. Even the flashy house of a with-it director (played by Justin Theroux) has a dated, glassy modernity. In this movie, L.A. is a Twilight Zone at the twilight of its existence. When Theroux is testing actresses, he has them dress like lead singers in bygone girl groups and belt out early-'60s pop like "Sixteen Reasons."

Lynch creates a heroine for our good dreams (Naomi Watts) and a temptress for our bad or naughty ones (Laura Harring), and then has them do a manic do-si-do. Incompetent hit men and nightmare-haunted nonentities carom around these two women and an unexplained bundle of cash. Pulling the strings are a freakish big shot (Michael J. Anderson) and a supernaturally pale Cowboy (Monty Montgomery).

For most of the movie, we don't know whose dream we're in. Of course, at the highest level, it's Lynch's, but it also belongs to the blond, perky Watts, who yearns for Hollywood stardom, and the black-haired, languorous Harring, who has emerged from a failed execution and car wreck with her body intact and her memory lost.

As we're drawn into its vortex, Mulholland Drive makes us realize afresh that we have no control over our dreams. In particular, and in the most seductive way, it forces us to question how pop-culture fantasies get into our heads and arouse, inspire or endanger us. Lynch refuses to provide any conventional bearings, but his ability to create omens and portents with shivery shifts in timing and lighting puts us in a state between expectancy and ecstasy. And midway through, ecstasy takes over with a rush of revelations about the talent of Watts' character and her depth as a woman.

Fresh from Deep River, Ontario, this innocent is so wide-eyed that she makes us laugh - and so winning and confident that we laugh with rather than at her. She has what Lynch has: a capacity to believe in the best and face the worst. When she enters an apartment loaned to her by her aunt, and surprises the dazed Harring in the shower, Watts takes the shock in her stride. When Harring spills the beans about her amnesia (she assumes the name "Rita," from a Gilda poster featuring Rita Hayworth), Watts seizes on her dilemma as a mystery to be solved. Around the time Watts creates a disguise for her new friend with a blond wig coifed like her own hairdo, she goes from helpmate to lover - and to some enigmatic place beyond. At that point, Lynch evokes not just Fellini, but the Bergman of Persona.

Lynch ejects inky splats of black-comic melodrama into this bracing freshet of emotion. A long-faced fellow meets a pal at a diner in hopes of exorcising a nightmare, and instead finds the nightmare replaying itself. Theroux's director loses his wife to a pool-cleaner, and his movie to a pair of mobster-financiers. (One is fixated on finding the perfect espresso.) A hit man discovers he just can't make a clean hit.

In this set of variations on situations spinning out of control, there's a reason for the clear-faced, feisty heroine to hold the central position. She's the only real adventurer - the one who wants to risk everything and push the limits of experience. From the moment her character turns an audition of a soap opera-ish scene into an erotic tour de force, Watts' performance both elevates and anchors the movie.

Even when the film is at its artiest, Watts reacts with the most persuasive case of delirium I've ever seen on film. As she watches a garish female performer with moist eyes and made-up tears lip-sync a potent Spanish version of Roy Orbison's "Crying," it's as though the song is tearing at Watts' skeleton and taking charge of her soul.

The picture's compressed third act makes the psychosexual dynamics too clear while obscuring pieces of the action. But Watts keeps accumulating passion to the bitter finale. She's the pillar and the strength of Mulholland Drive - and its perfect punctuation mark.

At the end, she's like a smiley face into the mask of tragedy.

Mulholland Drive

Starring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring

Directed by David Lynch

Rated R (sexuality, violence)

Released by Universal Focus

Running time 146 minutes

Sun score * * * 1/2

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