SOUTHLAND TALES (2006, directed by Richard Kelly, 144 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK
Move over Michael Cimino. Grand in design, epic in its failure, Richard Kelly’s follow-up to the cult hit Donnie Darko is bound to be the new historical benchmark for young directors sending their careers up in flames. At nearly two and a half hours, the apocalyptic Southland Tales propels itself through its End Days scenario like an SUV rolling over on the freeway: it flips and flips and flips and flips till one wants to shout out in fear “Jesus, won’t this thing ever stop!”
Jaw-dropping mess that this beast is, one can’t help but be a little awed by the crazy ambition attempted by Kelly’s script. Not only does Southland Tales start off juggling a good dozen characters in its convoluted web, it then precedes to tell us that there is both a break in the space time continuum AND that the movie itself is a movie within a movie. Things couldn’t get any more “meta” if the cast was acting out the film live as the movie unreeled.
I’m a fan of Darko, especially in its more ambiguous original edit, and for the opening 10 minutes it appeared that Southland Tales might take off. As realistic camcorder video of a Fourth of July picnic is shown, the camera suddenly swings to a mushroom cloud looming over the suburban street. We jump to a news channel screening the carnage as Justin Timberlake’s voice-over tells us that martial law has swept the U.S. after the 2002 nuking of Abilene Texas, an event remembered as “The American Holocaust”.
Breaking the cardinal cinematic rule of never telling an audience what you could show them, the voice-over continues and never stops, giving us endless ponderous backstory and cluing us in on what we can expect to happen in the very next scene. What unfolds is enough plot for a season of television, crammed into one prime time evening. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is an amnesiac TV star who has dumped the Presidential candidate’s daughter (Mandy Moore) to follow a scheming porn/pop star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) into a trap involving the energy guru Wallace Shawn and a zeppelin that figures into the end of everything we know. They are being pursued by “Neo-Marxists” Cheri Oteri and Nora Dunn as well as twin brothers (can you say Dude Where’s My Car‘s Seann William Scott in a dual role?) whose meeting could destroy the very fabric of the universe. And that description just tacks down the corners.
Fans enjoyed the whole extended cosmology that was buried beneath the surface of Kelly’s Darko. Here, the detailed minutiae rises to the surface and piles up everywhere. Peripheral sidebars are introduced at such a rate of speed that the plot’s mechanics would take a team of students weeks to chart. All this ephemera is so exhausting that by the 35-minute mark an exodus from the theater began, as one by one the audience peeled away Satire this freewheeling needs a steady hand to balance its elements, but Southland misfires like all the worst Saturday Night Live films playing simultaneously, its gags unfurling with the grace of a DVD’s deleted scenes after one hits “Play All”.
If only things were as audacious as they are manic. Buffy as a porn star who goes pop? Didn’t Tracy Lords do this over a decade ago? And just how do you satirize an administration when our own Strangelove-ian Vice President’s face sneers whenever he tries to smile? It’s no easy task to top the surreal world we’re living through and Kelly’s script is not up to the task.
Casting The Rock in the lead is a bad idea on its face that remains a bad idea, but the occasional joke pops through from time to time (few ideas are as humorously bleak as the 2008 campaign sign for “Clinton/Lieberman”) to remind you there is a probing mind behind the curtain. Yet for all of Southland’s manic flailing, there are few narrative ideas at play here, just some angry swipes at modern-day America and a rehashing of many of the ideas that Darko was able to contain in a more soulful and concise frame. But why should we expect this crazy world to make sense? The End is Near, says Kelly, and the time to lose your mind is now.