Doodad Kind of Town

Busy Days and David Lynch flicks: "Inland Empire"
December 12, 2007, 12:47 am
Filed under: David Lynch

This blog is written at/from/about the intersection of the movies and my life.

Sometimes, the moviegoing part of my life idles at the red light for days on end, while the other parts of my life are greenlighted all the way. That’s how it’s gone for me lately. Amid all the holiday hubbub (shopping, parties, extra choir rehearsals, root canal appointments) and recurring sleet storms, my movie watching has been put on the back burner. It’s probably a good indication of how low my “holiday spirit” is running that, when I finally had a free Sunday afternoon this weekend, I spent it watching Billy Wilder’s uber-cynical “Ace in the Hole.”

Last night, I finally found the time to dive back into my Netflix queue, and spent a whole 3 hours being mildly absorbed in David Lynch’s “Inland Empire.” I’m still trying to convince myself it wasn’t a waste of time.

I don’t have to tell you that “Inland Empire” was weird and surreal and didn’t have a plot or a point; it was a David Lynch film, after all. I’m not a big fan of Lynch’s either – I don’t think I’ve watched anything he’s done since his “Twin Peaks” days on television, and I found that show too precious by half. So why did I rent “Inland Empire”? Two words – Laura Dern.

I think Dern is the most criminally underappreciated actress at work today. Every performance she gives is beautifully nuanced and endlessly fascinating to watch. For starters, she has incredible comedy chops that don’t get used nearly enough. She got some well-deserved accolades years ago for “Rambling Rose,” but not nearly enough attention was given to her riotously committed turn as the dim-witted, glue-sniffing mother-to-be in Alexander Payne’s “Citizen Ruth.” Or her cheerfully sozzled Texas socialite in “Dr T. and the Women.” Or her hyper-vigilant, overprotective mommy in the recent “Year of the Dog.” Any time Laura Dern turns up in a film, it’s a happy surprise. Even though “Inland Empire” was anything but a comedy, I’d figured Laura’s starring presence would make it a great ride. And she was great, but here’s what happened:

I fell asleep three times, twice during the first 45 minutes. The second time I woke up to see Julia Ormond with a screwdriver in her side and a whole lot of blood everywhere, and I have no idea how it happened. And I didn’t rewind to find out. With 40 minutes to go, I started having an argument with myself about whether to stick it out or just hit the “Stop” button and turn on Anthony Bourdain’s Holiday special on the Travel Channel. “Inland Empire” eventually won out, but it was a hollow victory.

Dern plays an actress who gets cast in a remake of a rather melodramatic Polish film called “On High in Blue Tomorrows” by a pretentious British director (Jeremy Irons). She falls for her co-star, but the line between their onscreen and offscreen relationship blurs. Then she wanders into a sort of interior dreamscape where sometimes she’s a pregnant, white-trash housewife and sometimes she’s a tough-talking streetwalker in a seedy psychiatrist’s office (where she utters a great line: “Some men change. Well, they don’t change – they reveal.” How true!) Sometimes she hangs out with a group of women who look like porn stars and have a tendency to burst into songs like “The Loco-motion.” Interspersed with these scenes are scenes from the original Polish version of her film. And then there’s the absurdist sitcom performed by human-sized talking rabbits.

It all sounds way more entertaining that it actually is.
Movies like “Inland Empire” ultimately make me feel a little insecure. I like to think I am an intelligent, discriminating moviegoer. I can appreciate that it this film is wildly original and and has about 50 times as much imagination and audaciousness behind it as any mainstream movie you can name. (In fact, my recurring thought as I watched it was “Wow! Isn’t it great that David Lynch can still get financing for weird-ass stuff like this?”)

And yet…

It is such a slog to get through! So boring and so maddening, and so damn long! And there’s something so self-consciously clever, so art student-y about Lynch’s apparent infatuation with his own weirdness and his refusal to make any sort of sense. It’s like a weird, cool collage of heart-stopping sounds and images – but ultimately, a collage is only interesting (to me) for about 30 minutes, and “Inland Empire” drags on for another damn 142 minutes past the interesting point!

I can’t recommend it, even as I can’t quite dismiss it out of hand. I’m guess I’m glad I watched it, but I’m also glad I don’t have to sit through it again. It’s definitely art, but if it were up to me, it’d be shown on a continuous loop in one of those little rooms off to the side of a gallery in the MOMA or the Guggenheim – so you could wander in and watch it for a few minutes, rather than commit 3 hours of your life to it.

And, BTW, Laura Dern is fantastic in “Inland Empire” – but if it’s a Laura Dern fix you need, rent “Citizen Ruth.”


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