If you like movies that make sense, don’t go anywhere near “Mulholland Drive.” If you like to come out of the theater saying, “Oh, I get it — he was just pretending to shoot the other guy!” this is not your movie. On the other hand, if “Twin Peaks” was just too upbeat and linear for you and you feel that the references in “Blue Velvet” were just too obvious and jejune (in fact, if you have ever used the word “jejune” in conversation), then this movie is for you.
It is not a story but a mosaic of stories, eras, moods, characters, and themes that intersect, overlap, and parallel like a dream. After a jitterbugging credit-sequence prelude, a luscious brunette (Laura Harring) tells a limo driver that he is not supposed to stop, but he does. Just as he is about to shoot her, a car filled with carousing teenagers slams into the limo. The brunette limps away and hides out in an apartment. She has lost her memory, and when asked her name, she picks the name “Rita” from a poster for Rita Hayworth’s movie, “Gilda.”
The mood of this part of the movie is classic, noir-ish 1940’s Hollywood. But then the person who finds Rita in the apartment is Betty (Naomi Watts), a fresh-faced ingenue just off the plane from Deepwater, Ontario, hoping to make it as an actress and a star in LA. She could be from the 1950’s or she could be from the present day. Betty tries to help Rita find out who she is. Meanwhile, a young director named Adam (Justin Theroux) is being pressured by some very dangerous-looking guys to give a particular actress the lead in his new movie. When he refuses, he has to meet with a creepy-looking cowboy, who tells him, “If you do good, you’ll see me one more time. If you do bad, you’ll see me two more times.” A nervous young man tells a compassionate friend that he had a nightmare about a scary person behind Winkie’s diner and they go looking for him. Tiny little people run around screaming. A purse contains a lot of cash and triangular blue key that opens a blue box found in another purse. A different blue key confirms that a murder for hire has been carried out. Two friends laugh over a silly story and then one shoots the other to get a book of phone numbers. He then accidentally shoots a fat lady and a vaccum cleaner. We see a lot of phones, from old-fashioned dial phones to 21st century cell phones and headsets. In a strange nightclub called Silencio, a woman sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish, except she is just mouthing the words to a recording. That might have some relation to the lip-synching audition Adam is holding for his new leading lady. So when Adam goes home unexpectedly and finds Billy Ray Cyrus in bed with his wife and responds by pouring pink latex paint all over her jewelry, and Betty turns into Diane, who used to be dead, and Betty’s aunt’s landlady, or is it Adam’s mother, is played by 1940’s musical star Ann Miller, all of that does not seem as out of place as it otherwise might.
Themes of dreams and reality, identity and anonymity, innocence and corruption, creativity and conformity, ripple and resonate throughout. References to other movies flicker through, including the blending of face and profile from Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” and the spit out the coffee scene from the Clark Gable and Ava Gardner movie “The Hucksters.” Betty tells Rita that she wants to help her solve the mystery because “It’ll be just like in the movies.”
Watts and Herring are outstanding. Betty practices her corny audition scene with Rita with a competent but conventional reading. Then, when she gets to the audition, she completely turns it around, leaving us as breathless as the characters in the scene. Watts later suddenly becomes an entirely different character who has an entirely different history with “Rita” and carries it off splendidly.
Lynch cast unknowns as the leads but populated the margins of the film with old-time stars and semi-stars. This embellishes his themes and adds to the dreamy, half-remembered quality of the story. In addition to Miller, the cast includes Lee Grant, Robert Forster, and the star of the 1960’s television show, “Medical Center,” Chad Everett.
Parents should know that the movie has very explicit nudity and sexual situations, including lesbian encounters and masturbation. It also has very strong language, violence, a dead body, and disturbing images.
Families who like this movie will also appreciate Lynch’s other movies, including Blue Velvet. For a terrifically entertaining and insightful analysis of this movies, see this article from Salon.