Southland Tales

Directed by Richard Kelly, 2006

480_southland-tales-dvd.jpgIf you can imagine a cinematic cross-breed implicating David Lynch, P.T. Anderson, and Saturday Night Live in its interspecies couplings, you'll be on the way to understanding what Richard Kelly – the moody auteur whose major achievements to date are the brooding metaphysical horror-comedy Donnie Darko and the screenplay for Domino – has wrought with his satiric science-fiction opus, Southland Tales. It's a rambling, baffling, multi-story yarn about a movie star (Duane Johnson, still better known as The Rock), a porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar, still better known as Buffy), a couple of soldiers recently returned from Iraq (Seann William Scott and Justin Timberlake), and a 2008 presidential bid by the Eliot/Frost ticket (Kelly dots his screenplay with well-known quotes from both T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost), running against Democrats (ha!) Clinton and Lieberman. The Internet and interstate travel are both under government-mandated lockdown, the U.S. Army has invaded Syria (and god knows where else), and a rift in the space/time continuum has opened near Lake Mead.

Any plot synopsis is going to make Southland Tales sound several times more entertaining than it actually is. Rather amazingly for a film with such a plethora of ideas, the narrative seems utterly bereft. There's no denying Kelly's audaciousness: it's a two-and-a-half-hour shaggy-dog story taking so many potshots at celebrity culture, political scandal, and U.S. foreign policy that any viewer sympathetic to Kelly's worldview will probably be rooting for it. And for about 10 or 20 minutes, Kelly hits his marks as often as he misses. Much of the exposition in the first reel is delivered via TV screens playing a parody of CNN, with a news crawl at the bottom of the picture and tiny logos alongside the main picture indicating the sponsorship of Panasonic, Bud Light, and Hustler. The joking-around Kelly does in his film's own margins is often worth a chuckle, but the bulk of Southland Tales is deadly exposition of Kelly's resolutely daffy plotline. Because Boxer Santaros (Johnson) suffers from amnesia, a large proportion of the film's running time consists of scenes in which characters advance the story by explaining things to him.

There are a few actual show-don't-tell plot points that feel barely related to each other – a botched attempt at staging a fake double-murder, an assassination-by-sniper on the Santa Monica beach, and a climactic party/riot in the streets of downtown Los Angeles as a giant Republican dirigible floats overhead that made me want to watch Strange Days again. An ambient-techno score by Moby runs underneath most of the film, a device that's only partially successful at unifying the wildly disparate storylines the way a DJ's sensibility might bridge the differences between unrelated tracks. Kelly's trifles are more satisfying, like the out-of-nowhere set piece that has Timberlake lip-syncing his way through “All These Things That I've Done,” or the strangely moving dance choreography that puts on pause the action climax, in which an ice-cream truck looses the surly bonds of earth and a pissed-off military draftee channels his anger into a random but fat opportunity to stick it to the man.

Complaints about the incoherence of the story or the breathtakingly sophomoric dialogue might miss the point if Kelly were on top of his game as a filmmaker. But when it's not being obstinately stupid, Southland Tales is just difficult to watch. The widescreen cinematography is wasted on mostly bland set-ups and compositions, none of the actors (except maybe Johnson, who twiddles thumbs and fingers with the consistency of a man who's actually been given direction) seem to know exactly what kind of movie they're in, and the visual-effects shots in the final reel feel unfinished. Even the grace notes (like Johnson's declaration, late in the film, “I'm a pimp; pimps don't commit suicide”) get overextended into stupefaction.

At 144 minutes, Southland Tales could only benefit from another tight edit – this version already represents a post-Cannes trim and tweak — but writer Richard Kelly's screenplay is so diffuse and unmanageable that I'm not sure what director Richard Kelly could find to cut. Curious cinephiles will want to check this out regardless, and the sheer weirdness of the enterprise means it may well become some kind of cult classic in the not-too-distant future. But if you're looking for the new movie by the guy who made Donnie Darko, don't get your hopes up. This one is by the guy who wrote Domino. D

Image: Southland Tales, 2006, Samuel Goldwyn Films

Posted by Bryant Frazer on March 20, 2008 10:26 PM
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