'Mulholland': A Dead-End Street

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2001

IF YOU understand what "Mulholland Drive" is about, operators are standing by right now, waiting for a clue.

David Lynch's movie, which won the Director's Award at Cannes last spring, is filled to the brim with attention-riveting business, from memory loss to lesbianism, from identity swapping to murder for hire.

It features two emotionally tortured, dressed-to-kill starlets (Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts) who certainly don't hurt the eye as they saunter and sashay across the screen. And then there's Angelo Badalamenti's characteristically eerie score, which augments the movie's overall sense of beautiful gloom and doom.

But "Mulholland," which started out as a pilot for a proposed television miniseries (à la "Twin Peaks") and then evolved into the present 146-minute whatever-it-is, doesn't seem to be about anything.

On Hollywood's famous Mulholland Drive, a woman (Harring) staggers from a car crash, through bushes, across roads and into an apartment complex. Unable to remember who she is, she takes refuge in an apartment whose occupant has just left on a trip.

But the apartment isn't empty for long. Enter an aspiring actor named Betty (Watts), the occupant's niece, who has come to stay for a spell. When Betty finally encounters the stranger and asks her name, the woman (seeing a movie poster of Rita Hayworth) says her name is Rita. They soon become close friends (make that really close) and try to figure out Rita's true identity.

Their quest leads them to the filmmaking world, where Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a young director, is clashing with his mafioso financial backer over which actress to cast in his next movie. One thing leads (or doesn't lead) to another, as the plot spirals deeper into its own narrative vortex.

This implosion is signified by a subjective camera shot that seems to pull us into a small blue box. Perhaps this is Hollywood's version of Pandora's box, or Alice's rabbit hole. After this transition, you're pretty much on your own in terms of understanding what's going on.

"Mulholland Drive" is an extended mood opera, if you want to put an arty label on incoherence. And thematically, it's a compendium of half-baked notions about the dark side of Hollywood: gangsters making casting decisions; small-town dreamers who come to Hollywood and surrender everything, from values to sanity; romantic infidelity; and so on.

And because this is a David Lynch movie, we have an assembly of sideshow attractions: a singer named Rebekah del Rio, who swoons and collapses on stage after one of her performances, a cowboy in whiteface and, yes, a dwarf.

I think every filmmaker needs to see the scene in "Living in Oblivion" in which a dwarf actor rails against the movie roles he's constantly hired for: playing a dwarf in a dream sequence. "Who ever dreams about dwarves?" he asks.

I have to say, Lynch deserves some sort of Scheherazade Award for his ability to mesmerize you with heightened banality. Moment to moment, particularly in the first half, you're fascinated as you absorb the details. It's only when you realize there's nothing (not even a bald man) behind Lynch's curtain that you start to give up on the movie. In the end, "Mulholland Drive" isn't the long, graceful road we hoped for, it's just an overextended cul-de-sac.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (R, 146 minutes)Contains really weird stuff, violence, sexual scenes and obscenity. At Cineplex Dupont Circle and Shirlington 7.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company