David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" (IMDb listing) is a surreal and enthralling look into the fringes of Hollywood. It also is an attempt from Lynch to rescue his two-hour television pilot for ABC that was rejected by the network. Comprised of about 70 percent pilot and 30 percent new footage that Lynch shot when offered the chance by some very rich Frenchmen, "Mulholland Drive" is customary Lynch territory that immediately recalls "Twin Peaks" in both style and incomprehensibility.
The plot of "Mulholland Drive" really only occupies the first half of the 150-minute picture. Set up as a launching point for a proposed television series, "Drive" stars the smoldering Laura Elena Harring as Rita. After losing her memory in a car accident, Rita stumbles into the apartment of an innocent Canadian actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) who has just arrived in L.A. dreaming of stardom. Betty is enthralled and invigorated by Rita's predicament and sets out Nancy Drew-style to help her find the identity Rita is missing. Across town, a young director (Justin Theroux) is trying to find the lead for his next production when a group of sinister lawyers and mysterious men have already chosen an actress for him. Resistant to the idea of their actress, the director is given no choice when a stranger known only as "The Cowboy" steps in and informs the director that he should just play along or trouble will ensue.
At this point the new footage unspools, and it's certainly not TV fare. We see lesbianism, a mysterious key, a pair of two-inch high seniors who haunt Betty, a demon that resides behind a diner, and the same identity-switching Lynch used liberally in his 1997 opus "Lost Highway." Taking up mostly the last act of the film, the abstract sequences should be a walk in the park for Lynch fans, as it is familiar ground for the director to tread.
And that very abstract nature is what I enjoyed so much about "Mulholland Drive." A filmmaker who consistently is trying to disrupt the form of his own movies (and an accomplished abstract painter in his own right), Lynch also takes great care to make his surreal images as powerful as the frayed main narrative. There is little sense to the last 50 minutes of the piece, and Lynch would probably agree to that (though in its own little way, it isn't completely baffling). The gigantic left turn of this final act seems more of an attempt to capture the spirit of a story that was going to unfold over 100 episodes than to simply tie up the plot threads left when the pilot section of the film ends. Fragments of storylines (including Rita's) that were going to be paid off later in the show's run are left here to dangle in front of us as a cruel reminder of what might have been if the show ever aired.
It is frustrating to watch at times, since from the look of it, "Mulholland Drive" would've made a damn fine TV show. Lynch wasn't content to simply rip-off "Twin Peaks," rather he sought to elaborate on the themes he developed in that landmark show. "Drive" contains some great Lynchian moments. A scene involving a thug who is trying to steal a black book of important names, but keeps having to kill witness after witness to complete his task, is a film highlight. As is a haunting Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" sung by a mysterious singer who promptly keels over when finished. Also intoxicating is the simple mystery surrounding Rita, who has stolen her name in an amnesia-induced fog from an old Rita Hayworth poster.
Coming off his best work, "The Straight Story," this might seem like a return to the weirdness Lynch has been wallowing in for years. Yet "Mulholland Drive" is more than a return to the familiar Lynchian universe. By combining his restrained, yet wildly effective television pilot with the balls-out abstract visuals of the new footage, Lynch has found his greatest balance yet in his cinematic journey. Both sides complement each other, and they provide "Mulholland Drive" with enough dramatic juice to make 2 1/2 hours go by in the blink of an eye.
Filmfodder Grade: A-