Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Cheri Oteri, Nora Dunn. Rated R.
On some level, it’s hard not to admire Richard Kelly,
whose fierce determination to follow his muse has helped produce two of the most startlingly original films in recent memory.
His debut, Donnie Darko, was a complicated
tale of teenage romance, adolescent insecurities and time travel, featuring a sinister, sociopathic rabbit and set against
the backdrop of a colorfully dysfunctional suburb. It’s a challenging puzzle of a film, rewarding those who pay careful
attention, while trusting in the intelligence of its audience to fit the pieces together.
Kelly’s Southland Tales
demands more of viewers; it asks them to decipher the incomprehensible. In many ways, it defies description, but let me try.
The film is painful. Incoherent. Agonizingly long. Needlessly vulgar. In short, it is a spectacular failure, a perfect storm
of bad ideas.
What’s it about? Beats me. Set in
Los Angeles on the eve of the apocalypse, it is a frenetic collage of stories involving a Hollywood playboy (Dwayne Johnson),
a ditzy porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a brainwashed cop (Seann William Scott), and a small army of revolutionaries led
by past and present stars of Saturday Night Live. T.S. Eliot and Jane’s Addiction (strange bedfellows, indeed)
are referenced liberally. One character compulsively guzzles Cheese Doodles. Justin Timberlake, as a drug-addicted veteran
of the war in Iraq turned doomsday prophet, mercifully shoots her in the spine.
Things happen. Neo-Marxist freedom fighters, led by Cheri Oteri, try to incite a race riot, presumably
in hopes that chaos will cripple the government. Timberlake performs a hit song by The Killers. The concept of time travel
is revisited, which should come as little surprise – Southland
Tales was conceived as a sort-of sequel to Donnie Darko. And, in perhaps the most welcome development, Wallace Shawn and John Larroquette,
who can breathe life into the most turgid of movies, turn up as behind-the-scenes power brokers with matching appetites for
There is nothing dull about Southland Tales. It is a noisy, surreal mess of fragmented thoughts
intended, by Kelly’s admission, as a love letter to the MTV generation. It wants to be so many things – a scathing
indictment of Hollywood culture, an incisive post-9/11 political satire, an Orwellian fantasy about the end of creation, an
absurdist comedy. Kelly had so much to say that he is simultaneously releasing Southland Tales as a graphic novel in three parts, and if his prose is more lucid than
his filmmaking, I’d be happy to read them.
are those who will defend Southland Tales
for its eccentricities and boundless energy, just as there are those who attempt to divine artistic meaning from a blank canvas,
or who will gaze mesmerized at the flaming wreckage of a car crash. Fair enough. If American cinema has grown so homogenized
that we need directors like Kelly to administer a little shock treatment every now and then, so be it. His vision is audacious
at every turn and fearless to a fault; this is independent filmmaking at its most uncompromising.
Yet originality is not an end in itself, and Kelly’s execution here is appallingly shoddy. For
a movie six years in the making, Southland Tales seems about as thought-out as a Rorschach blotter. It is sloppy and self-indulgent, an inglorious disaster epic