If you thought Lynch's Mulholland Drive was too confusing and non-linear, then oh boy, are you gonna hate Inland Empire. Here's what happens in the first ten minutes or so:
A man and a woman, their faces digitally blurred, enter a hotel room and have a conversation (in Polish) about what whores do and whether they should fuck. A woman in a different hotel room sits on the bed and weeps as she watches a sitcom about three rabbits, dressed in conservative 50s attire, who speak entirely in meaningless pseudo-Beckett dialogue ("Someday I will find out." "It was red." "Who are we?" "That's not how it was.") as the audience laughs wildly. The father rabbit leaves the room, and we see him re-appear in a fashionable parlor; he stands in the background, fading in and out of view, as two men in the foreground talk (again in Polish) about whether the older man understands how important it is that the young man find an opening.
Once all of that's out of the way, we actually do get something that vaguely resembles a plot. Laura Dern stars as Nikki Grace, a faded actress who's just landed a role that she hopes will be her comeback; she's playing Sue in the oddly-titled On High in Blue Tomorrows. She warns her co-star, Devon (Justin Theroux), that their relationship must stay professional, as her husband is a very jealous man. Director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) tells Nikki and Devon that the movie is actually a remake of sorts; the original film was never completed because the two stars were murdered during production, and there are rumors that the movie is cursed.
The movie's characters, Sue and Billy, are having an affair, and inevitably, so are Nikki and Devon; they seem unable to keep clear lines between reality and their characters, and are constantly calling each other by the wrong names.
But about an hour in, the movie completely divorces itself from narrative logic (once you see the word AXXONN for the first time, don't expect anything else to make sense), as we follow Nikki/Sue/Nikki-as-Sue through a series of realities, hallucinations, fantasies, and/or dreams. It's never clear on what level of reality any of this is happening, or which version of her character Dern is playing. Assorted Polish-speaking characters keep appearing (it seems possible that these might be scenes from the aborted original version of the movie Nikki's making), as do the gloomy sitcom rabbits; people keep getting stabbed with screwdrivers, and there's a Greek chorus (of sorts) of prostitutes who do dance numbers to songs like "The Locomotion."
With so little narrative logic or internal consistency between successive appearances of characters, the actors who make the most vivid impression are those who appear only briefly. An actress named Nae -- just Nae -- plays a homeless woman who has one fabulous speech about visiting her cousin in Pomona; Diane Ladd (Dern's real-life mother) sparkles as a Hollywood talk-show host whose wig seems to have a life of its own; and Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie is hilarious as Nikki's new neighbor, who introduces herself with a series of cryptic, foreboding pronouncements ("I can never remember if it is yesterday or tomorrow; if it were 9:45, I would probably think it was after midnight.") delivered in a vaguely eastern European accent (Polish again, maybe?).
Dern is onscreen for most of the movie's 3 hours, and while she's clearly passionately committed to the project (she is one of the producers), and each individual scene is played with great enthusiasm and emotional honesty, there's so little throughline that I didn't get the sense of a unified performance; it's more like watching a series of acting exercises and monologues.
Lynch completists -- and you know who you are -- will surely want to see this latest journey through his bizarre dream world, but for most of us, I'm afraid that Lynch has dived so far into his own subconscious that we couldn't follow him even if we wanted to.