If 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.
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