Mulholland Falls

on April 26, 1996 by Jean Oppenheimer
   So much talent and so little to show for it. "Mulholland Falls" manages to disappoint on just about every level. Set in the early 1950s, the film follows an elite unit--the "Hat Squad," so named because of its members' headgear habit--of the Los Angeles Police Department as it investigates the murder of an attractive young woman whose body is discovered in the middle of the desert. Lead detective Max Hoover (Nick Nolte) finds himself personally involved in the case: The victim ("Higher Learning's" Jennifer Connelly) had been his mistress. As the cops close in on their suspect, the U.S. government steps in to try to disrupt the investigation.
   Nolte can't seem to find his character; rarely has he proved so ineffective. As his wife, Melanie Griffith is sexy but bland until late in the film, when a few emotional scenes allow her to actually act. As the mistress, Connelly has even less to do (and wear) in even fewer scenes. Only John Malkovich as the highly placed suspect and Chazz Palminteri as a Hat Squad member bring any sense of character to their roles. Supporting actors Michael Madsen ("Species") and Chris Penn ("Short Cuts") have but the barest of dialogue and stand about as if looking for the roles they were promised.
   Despite a number of action sequences, and quite a bit of screen violence, "Mulholland Falls" lacks both energy and purpose. The stylized period look--costumes, design and lighting--has a manufactured feel; even the cinematography of the normally reliable Haskell Wexler can't overcome the odds. Oscar winner Dave Grusin contributes a generic score, and Kiwi director Lee Tamahori (the critically hailed "Once Were Warriors") seems lost in America.
   Interestingly, the Hat Squad was a real unit within the LAPD during the postwar era. Screenwriter Pete Dexter (who wrote "Rush" for the same producers) mines the time period by using the burgeoning nuclear age as a key plot point. However, if it's gumshoes and atomic energy you want, stick to Mike Hammer. At least it's campy. Starring Nick Nolte, Chazz Palminteri and Melanie Griffith. Directed by Lee Tamahori. Written by Pete Dexter. Produced by richard Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck. An MGM release. Drama. Rated R for sexuality, violence and language. Running time: 107 min
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