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Review: "Mulholland Drive" -- cul de sac

By Paul Tatara
CNN reviewer

(CNN) -- It's no great shock that David Lynch's new movie, a Hollywood-obsessed dreamscape called "Mulholland Drive," barely makes any sense.

Aside from last year's knowingly titled "The Straight Story," Lynch hasn't made a rational picture since "The Elephant Man." His modus operandi is a surreal drift from one head-scratching situation to the next, and he has a cult following that's extremely proud of it.

But since that particular audience isn't inclined to ask questions, a question needs to be asked: If jokey incoherence is the entire point of a movie, is there any reason to sit through the damned thing?

The answer, in this case, is a resounding "sort of."

"Mulholland Drive" maintains a consistent, relatively humanistic Lynchian vibe from beginning to end, and it sports a few entertainingly loopy scenes. But it's debatable whether it deserves the accolades it's been receiving. Ideas aren't necessarily more complex because they're spoken in hazy semi-gibberish.

"Mulholland Drive" doesn't really have a plot, when you get right down to it, but here's what happens while you watch it.

Things kick off in the Hollywood Hills, where a gorgeous brunette (Laura Elena Harring) is being bossed around at gunpoint, in her limousine, by her driver. Suddenly, two speeding cars packed with teen-agers slam into the limo, after which the woman climbs from the wreckage and staggers down the hill to Los Angeles. Unable to recall who she is, she sneaks into a stranger's house and falls asleep.

The latest from director David Lynch (October 9)

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Meanwhile, a blonde-haired innocent named Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives at the airport in Los Angeles, hoping to become a big star. When Betty moves into an apartment that's been vacated by her aunt, she finds the dazed brunette in her bathroom. Betty agrees to help the woman, who decides to call herself Rita after seeing the name on a poster for a 1940s Rita Hayworth movie.

Betty and Rita begin an investigation to figure out who Rita really is. All they have to go on is that, for some reason, she remembers the name "Diane Selwyn."

That sounds like a movie. Sort of. But Lynch's subplots seem to be running in tandem with a different, non-existent story line. In one, a cocky young director named Adam (Justin Theroux) is at a meeting where he's being pressured by two mysterious businessmen to cast an unknown actress in a lead role. "This is the girl," they ominously intone. That sentence will be uttered -- more significantly than you might think -- throughout the movie, by several different people.

Adam, for his part, isn't off the hook once he leaves the meeting. He still has to catch his wife in bed with another man, and endure a conversation with an oddly imprecise cowboy who's decked out in full buckaroo regalia.

Oh yeah, there's also a hit man running around shooting people. He may or may not have something to do with what's happened to Rita, but, frankly, who the hell knows? And what about the mysterious midget in the glass-encased office who seems to be lording it over the other characters? Well? What about him?

This is certainly more entertaining than "Wild at Heart" (1990), "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" (1992) or "Lost Highway" (1997). At the very least, you seldom feel like Lynch is rubbing your nose in easy, anti-bourgeois vileness. In a way, he's out-done the backward narrative of "Memento" by making "Mulholland Drive" seem like it's unfolding sideways.

Quite surprisingly, he also views Betty and Rita with real tenderness, as opposed to wallowing in his usual rape-happy nihilism. Their hesitant sexual encounter is one of the best scenes Lynch has ever filmed.

So that's what you get, more or less, and it's all done with laudable attention to offbeat sound and lush color. If you'd rather take a beating than watch John Cusack drag his tired cutie-puss through "Serendipity," this may be the movie for you. Just don't pretend it's a work of genius because characters waft in and out of scenes like vapor, and Lynch can't be bothered to tie up loose threads. It must be great to get a standing ovation every time you fail to make a point.

There's a dose of pretty much everything in "Mulholland Drive": nudity, sex, blood, violence, a bloated corpse, profanity and guest appearances by Billy Ray Cyrus and Ann Miller (honest.) Watch out -- it's two-and-a-half hours long.



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