Is it possible to make a movie that is at once pretentious, derivative, completely incomprehensible, insanely long, outrageous just for the sake of it, tonally off-balance, with tons of distractingly recognizeable actors, and somehow surprisingly engrossing? Honestly, Southland Tales lives up to its negative hype. It is a car wreck of epic proportions. You sit there completely sucked in, but with your jaw hanging open wondering how a movie this completely off-the-wall bad can take itself so seriously, or even how it got funding in the first place.
The movie, Richard Kelly’s follow-up epic mess to cult hit Donnie Darko leaps from place to place like a kid on a playground after too much candy and juice, and usually leaves you wondering who these characters are and why are they doing whatever it is they’re doing, that is, if you can figure out what they are doing.
Full disclosure: I like Donnie Darko. I’m a little bit bitter towards it, but I like it. I think it’s a fantastic collection of scenes and ideas that fit together tonally, but don’t really make a coherent story. And I’ve tried to figure out the story. I was on the Donnie Darko bandwagon before the movie had even come out. I found the website, which at the time was something to behold, via a small article in EW magazine. Watched a bootleg copy of it while it was still in theatres. Had no idea what I just saw. I watched it over and over again, showing new people every time. I couldn’t figure out the master plan of what was going on. Things were so disjointed, and there was never any exposition to give any clue as to what happened at the end. I bought the DVD, and when I listened to the commentary track, I was surprised to find out that the director also seemed not to know. There was no explanation. He was just putting stuff in that he thought would be weird. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me again… uhh…. you don’t get fooled again.
I really can’t imagine that there was any plan going into this movie. Something about an extremist future, with big-brother republicans selling out for some kind of perpetual motion machine, and “neo-Marxists” (his word, not mine) bent on destroying everything for some reason. The media is a hyper-conglomerate of entertainment, commercials (most notably a car commercial, featuring two Hummers [the car] having sex with each other), propaganda, and news. And for some reason, every show is taped on a beach. The guy who created this energy machine (which looks exactly like the gyroscope in Contact) is somehow trying to take over the world by cutting off people’s hands or something. Some people are trying to blackmail The Rock, whose father-in-law is running for Vice President (i think?). Drugs are involved, needless to say. Whatever satire Kelly’s attempting, it’s either already been done, or it’s too broad to be saying anything, really.
Justin Timberlake is a “Revelations”-reciting narrator who sits on a machine-gun pedestal on the beach, looking to shoot God knows what, and really serving no purpose other than lip-synching to a song by “The Killers” in some sort of arcade, about halfway through. Sarah Michelle Gellar is a porn-star/talk show host who is either trying to blackmail The Rock or wants to be with him. I couldn’t tell. I don’t think she could. Sean William Scott plays twins. Cheri Oteri and Nora Dunn are crazy “neo Marxists”, as well as Amy Poehler. And if three SNL alumni aren’t enough, Jon Lovitz plays a racist cop. And if “SNL” isn’t the only Saturday late night sketch comedy show on your radar, “Mad TV”‘s Will Sasso is also there. Thow in the motley crew of John Larroquette (who’s actually pretty good), Mandy Moore, an unrecognizable Kevin Smith, the Highlander as an ice-cream-truck-driving arms rocket launcher salesman, Wallace Shawn in a dress and makeup, Bai Ling, and Janeane Garofalo in two seconds of screen time that amount to her being an extra (granted i think her part was entirely cut out), and you’ve got a cast that is seriously going to distract, even if you had the most engrossing material.
Not that the material couldn’t be interesting. It’s got all the elements that could make it completely engaging: blackmail, WW3, cutting off people’s fingers, perpetual motion machines, The Rock, fake murder plots, a giant blimp, memory loss, drugs, public beach mounted gun stations, and, yes, time travel. The problem is that there’s way too much of it, and a lot of it for no reason. That someone saw this script and said “let’s fund that” is remarkable. I really can’t understand how someone didn’t tell this guy to pare the story down to something that had actual character motivations you could follow. You know when you start a movie and the first title says “Part 4” (the first three parts were released as comics and one wonders how much more coherent they were), that things are going to be confusing. Even more remarkable is the amount of on-camera talent in it. How any of the actors could play these scenes is baffling to me, because I was constantly asking “Who’s that? Why is he doing that? What’s his purpose in this movie? For what reason is he so important that he’s the narrator?”, and if I was while I was watching, I guarantee that the actors were asking ten times as many questions. I’d like to have heard Kelly’s explanation as to why The Rock always put his fingertips together melodramatically when he was confused. EVERY TIME! And I wonder if The Rock could tell me that. Yes, there’s something to be said of making the audience think and figure something out, but like I said before, “I’m not getting fooled again”.
There is also something to be said for style over substance, but while it looks good (especially the blu-ray-quality version), and has some strangely unique things to it, most of it just felt like a rip-off of something else. There were multiple David Lynch moments, including a random group of recurring background little people; a strange old asian lady talking some kind of prophetic nonsense; and a recontextualized version of a highly-recognizable song, sung in a foreign language by a woman on a stage. The extremely ensemble and spread-out nature was taken right from P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (as, it seemed, was the strange pacing of a lot of it), which in turn (at least i hear) was supposed to be a Robert Altman homage. Lastly, and most importantly of all, he’s completely ripped off of himself. Incomprehensible time travel/ Dimensional rifts; someone getting shot in the left eye; large aircraft falling out of the air; the end of the world; wormholes (the effects work even looks the same). It’s all there. It’s not that the style is bad; it’s just incredibly unique while at the same time, paradoxically all been seen before. (figure that one out).
The theatrical cut is two and a half hours, one half-hour less than the widely-derided Cannes cut of the film, which you can see in parts, in low-quality video on the YouTubes, if you’re a masochist. I’d like to think that the missing half-hour explained some of the things I didn’t get, but judging from those reviews, I’d be wrong. (Though, from the few seconds of these clips I’ve seen, at least the narration is different and makes more sense). The movie cost between fifteen and sixteen million dollars to make, and was released in only 67 theatres (even limited releases usually get about 300), for a whopping $270,000 domestic gross. Yes, that’s “thousand”. After seeing it, one can easily see why. Not that I wouldn’t watch it again, mind you, but only with people who have no reservations and are willing to sit through the whole thing. I’d like to see the confusion and anger on their faces, and at the same time their desire to keep going because it can’t get any more outrageous. Oh yes. It can. Just for the sake of being outrageous.
Southland Tales takes all the faults of Donnie Darko and magnifies them tenfold. It’s not a failure of style, as the film’s got that in spades, but it is a complete failure of storytelling. Characters completely do major things for no reason, the order the scenes are in leaves you even more confused, and finally when a strange cabal of characters sits The Rock down to explain the whole story (for no other reason than to explain it to the audience), it makes no logical sense whatsoever. I guess there’s at least an attempted explanation.
One star for allowing my friends and I to complain about how none of the story worked, and half a star for the cool scene where Sean William Scott was messing around with a mirror that took about half a second to mimic his action.