There's room in Hollywood for the unconventional. But there are so many poorly made, boring independent film projects flooding the art houses and DVD-store shelves, it's hard to see the point in making one on purpose.
Yet here is the opening scene of a movie by David Lynch, in which an amateurishly lighted Laura Dern sits before a digital camera giving what looks like a run-through take of her lines. Some may find intriguing subtext and metaphor in these scenes, even if I find them dull and off-putting. One can't argue, however, that Lynch's new film is very long, very difficult to follow and constructed as if it were paid for with lemonade-stand sales.
The film follows Nikki (Dern), a reasonably well-off actress trying to secure a role in a movie that would be a remake if the original had not been struck by deadly tragedy midproduction. When not following mysterious ghosts into alternate realities, Nikki's dealing with the disconcerting knowledge that her real life is starting to mimic her screen role as she wanders in and out of dreams, time periods and possibly dimensions. Or maybe she's just imagining it. Or maybe her screen persona is just imagining it. She can't really tell, and frankly neither can we.
This being Lynch, there are moments that are so persistently individual they work, if not in support of the whole, at least as short bursts of weird intelligence. One that comes to mind is when an injured Nikki, trying to find refuge along Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, can find only slimy hipster prostitutes, disturbed vagrants and others who've stepped out of a particularly psychotic beat poem. "Empire" is not without its moments or ideas. If only they weren't so difficult to piece together, spread out as they are over three-plus hours of Lynchian psycho-noir landscape. You may make it through less scathed than Nikki, but not if you try to take the movie all at once. (R)