Mulholland Falls

600full-mulholland-falls-screenshotTo what extent should a new movie be compared with an acknowledged classic if the new movie invites the comparison? Probably to no extent, as long as the new movie earns the comparison and holds up on its own merits. The very title of Mulholland Falls carries a whiff of Chinatown, whose character Hollis Mulwray (the husband of Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray) was based on the Los Angeles robber baron William Mulholland. And its style, from Dave Grusin’s period score to Haskell Wexler’s lush photography, cements the likeness.

The sad fact is that, even if there were no Chinatown, Mulholland Falls would still be a bore. It breaks my heart to have to write that. Look at the cast: Nick Nolte, Chazz Palminteri, Chris Penn and Michael Madsen from Reservoir Dogs, Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Connolly, John Malkovich, Andrew McCarthy getting slapped around (which is almost worth the ticket price). Check out the director: Lee Tamahori, whose 1994 New Zealand debut, Once Were Warriors, ranks among the most powerful and electrifying dramas of the decade. How could it miss?

Let me count the ways. Partly it’s the script. Pete Dexter, usually a top-notch scenarist (Paris Trout), has misplaced his knack for subtle characterization. His four heroes (Nolte, Palminteri, Madsen, Penn), based on the real-life LAPD Hat Squad of the 1950s, are nearly identical. Nolte is married (to Griffith), Palminteri is in therapy for his temper, and that’s about it for their characters. As for Madsen and Penn, they have almost nothing to do. Talk about wasted talent.

Partly it’s the plot, which involves a military cover-up of atomic experiments. Nolte and his partners investigate a murder that leads them far outside their jurisdiction. What does the military do to get Nolte off the case? They threaten him with … a compromising film of himself and the murder victim. Ooh, scary. Actually, that wouldn’t be a bad idea if the movie suggested that the military wants to frame Nolte for the murder. But that never seems to occur to the moviemakers.

Partly it’s the direction. Lee Tamahori has been a great director before, and I’m sure he’ll be great again, but in Mulholland Falls he’s just spinning his wheels. In Once Were Warriors, he showed an intimate understanding of the pain of violence. Here, the screen is full of beatings and shootings, but it causes us no pain. Neither does the troubled relationship between Nolte and Griffith. Or the mournful flame Nolte carries for the murder victim. Nolte is playing a guy who keeps a tight lid on his emotions; Tamahori seems to be doing the same thing.

Mostly, incredibly, it’s the cast. Nobody here does anything he or she hasn’t done before. Take Nolte’s hat off, and you’ve got his 48 HRS. cop. Griffith’s kewpie-doll voice is not aging well at all. And John Malkovich, as the creepy general supervising the atomic testing, can no longer be bothered to give a performance. He just shows up and delivers his lines in his usual dead monotone that says “This movie is beneath me.” In the case of Mulholland Falls, he may be right.

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