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Movies can be a giant waste of time, but at least they’re more efficient than TV series. Take, for example, writer-director David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Originally designed as an ABC-TV continuing drama, the film compresses the Twin Peaks experience into a mere 146 minutes: It starts out dark, sexy, ominous, and intriguing but becomes a hopeless mess—a dark, sexy, and ominous mess, of course—in less time than it takes a contemporary TV series to dispense with such multipart guest stars as Alan Alda.

Like such predecessors as Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive is a study of a small middle-American town whose patina of normality chips easily beneath the fingernails of a lubricious starlet. This time, though, it’s a burg you’ve probably heard of: Hollywood. The action begins on the road that provides the movie’s title, which meanders across the hills above the city of (bad) dreams. A woman (Laura Elena Harring) is ordered out of a car at gunpoint, but her destiny is interrupted when a second car rams the first one. Saved but dazed, the woman scurries down the slope to Sunset Boulevard—the street that provides the title of Lynch’s favorite movie about Hollywood—and slips into one of those ’30s garden-apartment complexes common in the neighborhood (and films set in it). She’s still there when the apartment’s new resident, perky would-be actress Betty (Naomi Watts), arrives from Deep River, Ontario, another of Lynch’s odd little towns.

On her first full day in town, Betty gives an audition in which she proves her acting ability by getting all sultry with a lecherous over-the-hill actor (Chad Everett). She’s distracted from her career possibilities, however, by the plight of her new roommate, who has amnesia, a bag full of cash, and a mysterious blue key so sci-fi-looking that it might as well be a leftover prop from Lynch’s Dune. Glancing at a poster of Gilda, the woman names herself Rita after that movie’s star, Rita Hayworth. She vaguely remembers, however, another name: Dianne Selwyn.

There are several other plot strands, incorporating the inevitable hit man and a Hollywood diner, but the principal one involves Adam (Justin Theroux), a bratty director who resists when his upcoming film is commandeered by gangsters, led by Vincenzo (Dan Hedaya). The mobsters inform Adam that his project must star a woman named Camilla Rhodes. When Adam refuses, he’s instructed to go see the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), who meets Adam in a spooky corral somewhere in the Hollywood hills. This sequence adds another dollop of Lynchian mysterioso but no new information: The Cowboy simply reiterates that Adam must hire Camilla.

Meanwhile—or something like that—Betty and Rita play at being detectives, “just like in the movies.” With Rita wearing a blond wig so that the two women resemble mirror images of each other, they also become lovers. (When Betty asks Rita if she’s ever made love to a woman before, Rita gives the only possible answer.) They search for Dianne Selwyn, and later they follow Rita’s instruction—delivered in her sleep—to go to Silencio, a demented late-late-night cabaret where Rebekah del Rio sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in a cappella Spanish. Except that she’s not really singing: The magic trick that Silencio’s performers celebrate is just lip-syncing, that old standby of shows like American Bandstand. That’s apt, because Mulholland Drive is set in a contemporary L.A. that’s channeling the ’50s. (Lynch even found a small role or two for dancer-actress Ann Miller, whose original movie career ended in that decade.) This Hollywood is a world of corrosive studio intrigue, candy-colored doo-wop numbers, and perky ingénues like Betty.

Except that Betty will not be Betty much longer. The first two-thirds of Mulholland Drive proceeds at TV-series pace, setting up mysteries that can be unraveled—or further raveled—over a full season. Then the rejection letter from ABC symbolically arrives, and Lynch rushes to tidy up the muddle he’s made. His solution is take the characters through the looking glass: Under the spell of the blue key—or perhaps at the instigation of the Cowboy—innocent Betty becomes corrupt Dianne, and clueless Rita is now cruel Camilla. Dianne is madly in love with Camilla, who has abandoned her for Adam. Heartbroken, Dianne sets in motion events from the first story, which may be a dream version of the second. Or not.

Mulholland Drive’s supporters have already gone to some trouble to depict the film as a profound vision of Hollywood’s dream industry. Forget it. The movie is all atmosphere, alternately scary and erotic and sumptuous, wrapped in Angelo Badalamenti’s black, sticky score. What distinguishes the film is not its supposed contemplation of Hollywood roles and personae, but the skill with which it puts the director’s beguilingly loony, lushly appointed fantasies on the screen. For a man who doesn’t know where he’s going, Lynch really knows what he’s doing.

For Holland-born Australian writer-director Paul Cox, love is best—or at least most interesting—when it’s awkward. His movies have tracked the clumsy, touching romances of the shy, the lonely, and the blind (sometimes literally), with a speciality in late bloomers. The two lovers of Innocence seem almost too normal for Cox—they found each other when they were young and pretty. But that was 50 years ago, in Belgium. Now, Andreas (Charles Tingwell) and Claire (Julia Blake) are old and Australian, yet as giddy as teenage lovers when they rediscover each other. Of course, their health is not what it once was. Also, whereas Andreas is conveniently widowed, Claire is still married to John (Terry Norris), who may not be passionate anymore but finds he can still be jealous.

Like all of the half-dozen Cox films that have been seen in the United States, this is a chamber piece. The three principals are joined only occasionally by others, notably Andreas’ daughter and Claire’s son, and flashbacks of their former selves, deeply in love but destined for heartbreak in post-World War II Antwerp. Although well acted, the central characters are almost as bland as their adolescent selves, who are merely glimpsed walking on riverbanks and making love. John’s resistance to his wife’s new/old romance is the film’s principal source of energy.

Cox has a gift for portraying vulnerability in terms that are poignant without being sentimental. In this film, Andreas has a vision of mortality that’s simple and powerful. Yet death becomes an easy escape for the director, if not for his characters, in resolving the tale’s silver-haired love triangle. With its visits to doctors and colloquies about the afterlife, Innocence is less a love story than a race to the grave. For a filmmaker who values romance for its disruptive powers, he offers too decorous a conclusion. CP