Southland Tales (U.S., 2007) *
D: Richard Kelly
The cliché is that it takes great talent to make a truly terrible movie. Lots of notable directors have overambitious, hubristic disasters in their resumés. Otto Preminger's Skidoo. Barry Levinson's Toys. David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees. Hell, even John Huston contributed to 1967's leadenly unfunny James Bond parody Casino Royale. But as this blog has past attested, I am a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, and those films have nothing on the works of Coleman Francis and Ed Wood. Sometimes bad is just bad. The big tragedy of Southland Tales, the sophomore film of Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, is that it's so bad that it makes you wonder if it's in the Preminger category or the Francis one. I liked Donnie Darko. After Southland Tales, I'm so disappointed that I'm not sure I want to hear anything more Kelly has to say.
The convoluted, multi-threaded storyline has an Altmanesque ensemble of celebrities and quasi-celebrities cast as various eccentrics. Dwayne Johnson, aka "The Rock," plays Boxer Santaros, a Schwarzenegger-like movie star with political ties; at the outset of the movie, he has been found wandering the desert with little memory of his past. He falls in with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a pornstar attempting to build a media empire around her name; she is secretly in league with a group of revolutionary Marxists who have a complex extortionist scheme involving both Santaros and Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), who has a mysterious double. There's also corrupt Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Obsorne); his wife, Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), who runs a government system (provided for by the Patriot Act) that monitors all citizens - even when they use the toilet; their daughter - and Santaros' wife - Madeline (Mandy Moore); Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), the mastermind behind an alternative energy source which uses tidal energy to manipulate objects from afar; and a soldier (Justin Timberlake), narrating the film, watching the action from a gun turrett high on a building overlooking the Pacific Ocean, himself addicted to a drug made from the same substance that powers the Baron's energy source. There's also a metaphysical mystery, a la Donnie Darko's, centering around a dead body found in the desert - a man Santaros may have killed - and of course Taverner's strange doppelgänger and three mysterious women who may be - no, are - harbingers of the Apocalypse. The story is hard to follow not because it's overly complex, but because we don't care about any of the characters, therefore we have no emotional investment in the plot. A lot of things happen in this movie, but it's not until the very last stretch, when the metaphysical cord of the mystery begins to unravel, that we muster a vestige of interest. Or not, because we left the theater two hours ago.
It might just be that I have little patience for writing that's both terrible and self-satisfied, and Southland Tales is full of it. The characters all speak in non-sequiturs, as though Kelly is certain that his film will be such a cult classic that these pieces of dialogue will one day adorn tee-shirts and coffee mugs. But the "satirical" dialogue is almost never funny, because Kelly does not, apparently, know how to write comedy, let alone direct it. Casting familiar faces from Saturday Night Live (Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri) does not automatically mean that the stilted lines they're given to deliver will be hilarious. The extended scenes in the secret Marxist compound are truly gruelling, as these comediennes - who can be very funny, given the right material - scream their dialogue and belabor ill-conceived gags, while taking the viewer along subplots that don't mean much to the bigger picture. Kelly wants to make an all-encompassing satire about American society. He wants to attack the Bush administration, the war on terror, the war in Iraq. He wants to show how we've all become "pimps" as our culture degenerates into the oversexed and overcrass. He namechecks the Pixies ("Wave of Mutiliation" is sung, and also becomes the title of the last "chapter" of the film) and a Philip K. Dick novel (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which I recommend reading instead of seeing this film). Like Terry Gilliam's Brazil, he layers this alternate reality with slogans, posters, and traces of backstory that suggest a fictional world that extends beyond the boundaries of the film, but to no effect, because the mythology of Southland Tales isn't particularly intriguing. (A comic book written by Kelly preceded the release of the film, and provides the opening chapters to this story which begins in media res.) That's at least partly an issue of timing: his political jibes seem obvious today, and would have seemed more relevant and daring four years ago.
To Kelly's credit, his film first opened at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, with a running time closer to three hours. Reviews were disastrous, although Film Comment was kind, favorably comparing his film to David Lynch's Inland Empire. Hoping to gain wider distribution, Kelly spent almost two years re-editing and reshaping his film, as well as adding more special effects, as he did for the director's cut of Donnie Darko. I can only guess that much of the narration and exposition in this final cut of Southland Tales was added over those two years, and although it helpfully fills out the backstory and fills in the more incoherent aspects of the plot, it also overcompensates by providing too much explanation. The effect is like reading an ambitious science fiction novella written by a creative writing student while he simultaneously shouts his themes and intentions into your ear. You can also feel that the film is missing whole chunks of its story, in particular much of Timberlake's character and the subplot involving drug addiction; Kelly seems to be going somewhere with the idea of the Baron's alternative fuel source being used to control the minds of drug-abusing soldiers, but then drops that plot in the rush to the climax. I also glimpsed Janeane Garofalo dancing with Timberlake at the end of the film: IMDB confirms her presence as "General Teena MacArthur," so presumably the rest of her material is on the cutting room floor. Do we have to wait for another "director's cut"? I'd rather not.
This film was released in U.S. theaters, after that long delay, in November of 2007. It finally appeared in Madison this weekend - February 29, 2008 (Kelly might appreciate his film's opening on a day that only occurs once every four years). If it seems unusual that Southland Tales materializes in my local theater only a few weeks before its scheduled DVD release date (March 18), chalk that up to the desperate straits that the theater, Westgate Cinemas, has found itself. It was once the premier art house theater serving Madison, but since Robert Redford opened his better-in-every-way Sundance Cinemas just down the road, Westgate has been scrambling to retain its audiences. For about a month or so they scheduled touring stand-up comics, and they began serving alcohol. Now Westgate shows older films like Goodfellas in addition to some of the less-popular art house films (i.e., those Sundance lets them have). My wife and I hadn't been to Westgate in a long while, and were shocked to find it deserted on a Friday night. She bought a beer from the concession stand, and was given a wristband to wear: "You can take it off when you're done with your beer." To approach the theater showing Southland Tales--the main auditorium--we had to pass beneath a ceiling leaking water. As soon as we sat down, even though we were ten minutes early, the projectionist immediately dimmed the lights and started the film. Although this was opening night, his instinct was correct; no one else showed up. The odd result is that I felt that I was "bearing witness" to Southland Tales. I had to be there to prove that it happened. That we had gone at all was my wife's idea; she wanted to be able to tell people that we saw it on the big screen. I'm not sure that I'll be bragging about that anytime soon. I was hoping Southland Tales would be a forgotten classic, the sort of film that critics dismiss now but is revived in reputation years down the road. Instead this is something more akin to the misfires directed by Robert Altman: the chaotic Brewster McCloud, the turgid Quintet. If Kelly goes on to better things (he has another film, The Box, opening later this year), then Southland Tales will get periodically re-evaluated. I would suggest, with heavy heart, that it's not worth the effort. The film is excruciating. You've been warned.