A Festival of Flops

The worst movie I’ve seen this year is Mulholland Drive , a load of moronic and incoherent garbage from David Lynch that started out as a rejected TV pilot and predictably ended up at the New York Film Festival, where pretentious poseurs sit with their eyes glued to any screen as long as the projector is still running. From this bizarro atrocity, they should get astigmatism. A strange, unidentified woman in black is forced out of a limo at gunpoint on a street above the lights of Los Angeles. A pair of lips says, “The girl is still missing.” Meanwhile, a sunny blonde named Betty arrives at LAX to break into the movies and moves into the apartment where the mystery woman is hiding. When Madame X comes to, she has a black bag filled with money, a blue key and a powerful case of amnesia. Instead of calling the police, the loopy Betty decides to help her. “It’s my first day in Hollywood,” she says, “and I want to walk around anyway.”

In a dizzying succession of tangential subplots, a film director finds his wife in bed with the pool boy and pours a can of pink paint all over her jewelry; a lunatic robs a seedy office and riddles the neighbors with bullets; two gay guys see a monster hiding in the trash bin behind a coffee shop; and everyone seems to be running away from unknown terrors. Within 24 hours, Betty dazzles Paramount, discovers a decaying corpse and becomes the lesbian lover of the weird amnesiac she calls Rita, who dons a fright wig and wakes up in the middle of the night speaking fluent Italian before stealing off to a surreal theater where another wacko lip-syncs an Italian aria and passes out onstage. Rita turns out to be the star of a film that is being directed by the man who found his wife in bed with the pool boy, Betty turns out to be a junkie named Diane and … oh, what’s the use? Nothing in this interminable (two and a half hours of agony) swill makes one lick of sense, which seems to be Mr. Lynch’s arrogant intention from the start. When all else fails, he cuts to the Hollywood sign.

I can think of no sane reason why any fool would finance this lurid gibberish, and the only excuse for suffering through it is the curious appearance of Ann Miller, the legendary MGM musical star, as a garish landlady named Coco. Like everyone else in the cast, the Queen of Tap seems to have directed herself; fortunately, her character has nothing to do with anything else in the film. Mulholland Drive reminds me of that juggler in Ms. Miller’s Broadway musical Sugar Babies -the guy who juggled the sneaker, the apple and the meat cleaver. Get the right balance and everyone goes, “Wow, that’s cool!”; drop the wrong thing and you end up with a finger missing. The loathsome, incomprehensible and dismayingly amateurish Mulholland Drive goes one better-it’s missing an entire brain.

Another horror unveiled at the festival and now opening commercially is Fat Girl , one of a vast number of current films that reflect a disturbing obsession with death and torturous sexual relationships. Catherine Breillat, the controversial French director who brought full-scale pornography to the commercial screen in 1999′s numbing Romance , now returns with this repellent story about an obese 12-year-old who gorges on banana splits and endures endless insults about her weight while watching with envy and rage as her beautiful 15-year-old sister loses her virginity to a handsome Italian student on a summer holiday.

The film segues from black comedy to violent horror on the way back to Paris, when the mother and pretty sister are hacked to death by a maniac on the expressway and the “fat girl” is brutally raped and abandoned on the side of the road. Dazed but dazzled, she seems oblivious to the carnage. In fact, she’s so happy to finally be the object of somebody’s sexual attention that she refuses to press charges. The sex is ugly and graphic in a film so pointless and revolting it cannot be redeemed even by shock value.

The Case For Destiny

After so much crapola, is it any wonder people are flocking to Serendipity ? Fluffy and innocuous as Cool Whip, it is nonetheless uplifting, romantic and delightful, further enhancing the world’s enduring love affair with the Big Apple-the kind of movie we need more of right now. John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale play strangers who meet cute in the Christmas rush at Bloomingdale’s while bickering over the last pair of black cashmere gloves. Although they’re involved with others, they discover an immediate affinity during a ridiculously romantic spin through the skating rink at Rockefeller Center and then tempt destiny by exchanging names and phone numbers, kind of. He writes his on a $5 bill that she promptly spends; she writes hers inside a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera which she promises to sell to a secondhand bookstore. Should they find these lost items one day, they’ll know that fate meant them to be together, in the beguiling tradition of Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart.

Years later, living on opposite coasts and on the verge of marriage, neither can forget that fateful Christmas when Cupid’s arrows wounded them forever. He enlists an obituary writer for The New York Times (Jeremy Pivens) to track down the mystery woman he remembers only as Sara, and she teams up with a New Age bookstore owner (Molly Shannon) in a long process of detective work that shows New York as a glittering, magical land of enchantment where love conquers all. The film’s chief problem is that the two stars appear together only in the beginning and end, making their chemistry impossible to assess. The funniest bits involve Eugene Levy as a demented Bloomingdale’s tie salesman on the verge of a nervous breakdown-the kind of role that made Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn indispensable staples in films of the 40′s. Handsomely directed by Peter Chelsom, who redeems himself after the disastrous Town & Country , it’s contrived and sweet enough to give you a toothache-but, in the end, Serendipity is more warming than mulled cider with cloves on Christmas Eve.

Lucci’s Lounge Act

Susan Lucci may be famous as the man-hungry femme fatale Erica Kane on the soap opera All My Children , but there’s nothing tempestuous or suggestive about her sunny nightclub debut at Feinstein’s at the Regency (through Oct. 13). She’s as tiny as Thumbelina, and her engaging smile is a bracing tonic for everyone, including the sad and weary cops and firefighters she invites to occupy the ringside table every night.

Singing is a lifelong dream, and she gives it all she’s got in a slick show ranging musically from Duke Ellington swing to Peggy Lee blues. If she hasn’t found a style or a sound of her own, Ms. Lucci still commands attention when she shares family photos of her two children during a heartfelt arrangement of Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around,” and proves she’s a good sport on “Winning Isn’t Everything,” a clever song by Marvin Hamlisch about how it feels to have the longest losing streak in the history of the Emmy Awards (she finally won in 1999).

As a singer, Ms. Lucci is no Ella Fitzgerald-her pitch wavers, and her arrangements are of the unremarkable Vegas lounge-act variety, but she makes up for all that with good taste in music, an overwhelming sincerity, a determination to please and a triumphant personality. My advice to her: ditch the over-rehearsed patter, trust your material more and follow your own instincts. Why? Because there’s something about Ms. Lucci’s cocoa-colored sequins and cheery ready-for-teddy gameness that is very comforting and fun in the face of world frowns. Despite occasional intonational challenges, this is a gal who sends you home smiling.

Kim Stanley, All Weekend

Kim Stanley died on Aug. 20 in New Mexico, leaving a gap in the history of American acting that will never be filled. Widely considered the greatest actress of her generation, she was a source of inspiration for a whole legion of writers and performers who grew up watching her on “live” television dramas in the 1950′s while doing their homework. Many of them will celebrate her overpowering influence and achievement at a memorial service on Friday, Oct. 12, at 2 p.m. at the Actors Studio, 432 West 44th Street. Speakers will include Joanne Woodward, Janice Rule, Elaine Stritch, Arthur Laurents, Bryan Forbes and John Guare.

As a special treat, that entire weekend will be devoted to the showing of six of her greatest television triumphs. Friday at 7 p.m., Horton Foote will provide from his private collection a rare chance to see the Philco Playhouse production of A Young Lady of Property . On Saturday, you can see The Traveling Lady , which was turned into the Broadway production that catapulted Kim Stanley’s name above the marquee in lights for the first time, as well as John Frankenheimer’s 1957 Playhouse 90 production of Clash by Night that made television history. On Sunday, there’s the Playhouse 90 production of William Faulkner’s Tomorrow , followed by the two-hour Ben Casey in 1963 that won Ms. Stanley a Best Actress Emmy. All of these events are free, but call the Actors Studio at 757-0870 for times, details and possible changes. Since every theater notable who knows anything about the art of acting at its zenith will be there, make plans to arrive early. This is the first time Kim Stanley-notoriously reclusive in her lifetime-has ever been honored in New York. A stampede is expected.