Imagine a dream in which you're watching an episode of "77 Sunset Strip," the private-eye TV series of the late 1950s. As the story nears its conclusion, the show takes a hard right: The lead actors are now playing completely different characters, and the comforting kitsch gives way to impressionistic, soft-porn decadence -- "La Dolce Vita" as remade for the Spice Channel.
That's the dangerous curve that awaits us on "Mulholland Drive," writer/ director David Lynch's feature-film extrapolation of his ill-fated 1999 TV project. Meant as a quirky but commercial follow-up to Lynch's 1989 broadcast phenomenon, "Twin Peaks," "Mulholland Drive" was ultimately rejected by the ABC network after a series of "creative dialogues" gutted its pilot film of almost any eccentricity. But in reinventing the idea as cinema, Lynch has done more than tag a tidy conclusion onto leftover footage and hope for vindication. The coda he's added raises "Mulholland Drive" to a plane of nonlinear intelligence seldom broached by American filmmakers.
The recovered pilot forms the majority of the film. Young Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) arrives in Los Angeles to seek her fortune as an actress, only to fall in with a beautiful amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) who calls herself Rita (as in "Hayworth"). In between auditions, Betty tries to help Rita discover who she is, even as mysterious pursuers close in on them, perhaps coveting the blue key and/or the wad of cash in Rita's purse.
Meanwhile, film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) runs afoul of mobsters who seek to influence the casting of his latest movie. And a pair of diners have a brush with terror behind the dumpster at a Denny's-like restaurant.
These segments play like a greatest-hits parade of vintage Lynch images and themes. Visual references to "Twin Peaks" are copious, and the gee-whiz sleuthing is pure "Blue Velvet" (1986). But instead of resolving the mysteries, Lynch does what he did in "Lost Highway" (1997): He abandons his main characters and shoos us off to a parallel L.A. that's grimier and nastier than the one we've seen. (Here, the pilot ends and the new material begins.) Familiar faces are now referred to by different names; betrayal and obsession replace gangsters as the villains of the piece.
Anyone who dismissed "Lost Highway" as incoherent will again throw up his hands. But the more intrepid will rise to the challenge of piercing Lynch's layered realities. It's tempting to view the bifurcated narrative as a direct comment on its creator's frustrating TV experience; the downward spiral we witness may mirror his own disillusionment. Or are we presented with a broader excoriation of the putrid truths that hide behind the Hollywood myth? If that's the intent, then the extra scenes aren't quite as disturbing as they should be. More sleazy than tragic, they are the product of an old-school voyeur whose outlook is rooted in the very square-jawed conservatism he lampoons.
Then again, intensifying the contrast between the story's two movements would only reinforce the second as denoting "reality," and what fun is that two hours later? Painting in shades of artifice keeps the game alive. Lynch's latest film is about expectation and perception, the cognitive baggage lugged by its protagonists and audience alike. We can choose not to carry that baggage if we prefer, but with it in hand, we can follow "Mulholland Drive" almost anywhere.