Dir: Richard Kelly, USA, 2007, 144mins
Southland Tales, re-cut since its world premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, is apocalyptic vaudeville, as politicians, cops, Iraq veterans porn stars and an amnesiac actor scramble to fulfil or forestall conspiracies in Los Angeles, culminating in a world-ending Fourth of July. It's an incoherent cataclysmic comedy, and often a wildly funny one.
Critical response to the film won't be much more positive than the near-unanimous boos it received at Cannes. Yet fans of director Richard Kelly's 2001 Donnie Darko (and of a huge cast with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Justin Timberlake) could circumvent the older generation and make this entropic sci-fi romp critic-proof. Raunchy dialogue from Gellar and company might bring the young audience back for multiple viewings, if only to memorize the lines.
The sprawling spectacle of the world exploding in LA (complete with fires) also makes subtitles less than necessary. So does strong physical comedy and the inanity of much that's said, giving Southland Tales solid potential in foreign markets.
In the many-plotted epic, near-future Southland (Southern California) is gripped by paranoid war frenzy and an energy crisis, three years after two nuclear attacks hit Texas. It's the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign (with Donnie Darko's dad, Holmes Osborne, playing a sleazy senator), and the Patriot Act has been emboldened to monitor everyone and everybody from techno-futurist command centres of a new agency, USIDent. A German firm led by Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, in a wig) has a process to generate energy from ocean current, but it throws the earth off its orbit, with grave environmental results.
Kelly's direction is a slash-and-burn weave of LA colours and textures. The action lurches mostly between gleaming downtown skyscrapers and graffiti-smeared digs near the ocean where a neo-Marxist underground led by tough little Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri) plots violent revolution.
On freeways crisscrossing the LA landscape, three characters pursues their fates in deadpan earnest - action actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) stumbles in and out of a script he can't remember, riding Pulp Fiction-style with Roland Taverner, a Hermosa Beach cop (Seann William Scott). Platinum porn queen Krysta Now (Gellar) pushes back the walls of ignorance with a reality/talk show on which no subject is safe.
Voice-over prophecies from the Book of Revelations are intoned by narrator Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a wounded Iraq vet, but DP Steven Poster and production designer Alexander Hammond ensure that none of the hallucinatory doomsday fatalism looks real, nor will you ever think that it is. Surveillance bunkers seem right out of Austin Powers, as does Shawn's diminutive mad scientist, and the grimy neo-Marxists' lair resembles the movie radicals' hideout in John Waters's Cecil B. Demented. There's a lot more awe (and laughs) in the logistics of assembling this hyper-story than there is shock in its farcical doomsday.
Southland tales has as many movie allusions as it has characters and plots. Kelly begins by borrowing from himself, with trashy smart-ass dialogue harshened beyond the teen-speak of Donnie Darko telescoped outward from unhappy suburbia to uncontrollable Los Angeles. The race to doomsday has parallels with Dr. Strangelove (and its ensemble cast of villains), and southland's slapstick can echo the original Casino Royale and Austin Powers.
Kelly's tone on the road to doomsday is light (despite Timberlake's sullen lip-synching of All These Things that I've Done, by The Killers), evoking the madcap treasure-hunts and comedian-laden pile-on of Stanley Kramer's California ensemble classic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad world (1963)
Kelly's comic cast (and a soundtrack mostly by Moby) make endurable the satire-athon's two hours twenty-four minute length. Think of graphic novel icons, bouncing in and out of each others' comic strips. Timberlake and Scott are leaden heroes, Gellar's sparkling porn-Oprah is appealingly inane, and Johnson is surprisingly hilarious as a plodding bewildered hulk, his eyes bugging out each time he struggles with memory loss.
The re-cut version, 19 minutes shorter than the original, has tighter scenes and more than 600 new special effects shots. Kelly cut scenes dealing with the oceans-into-energy formula's impact on human behavior, in which Janeane Garofalo plays a general, and dropped a sequence in which Boxer (Dwayne Johnson) falls in love on a drug-induced time trip back to 1928. (Both and more are promised for the DVD.)
The 2007 version opens with an animated primer at the top introducing the new America, vengeful after 9/11 and reeling from the movie's 2005 nuclear attacks, but prepare to be confused later on as countless character stampede through many stories. The truly lost can buy Southland Tales (I-III), Kelly's three graphic novels, with drawings by Brett Weldele, which were created as a prelude to the movie. And they can always see the film more than once, which the studio won't mind.
Southland Tales defies the studios' conventional wisdom that an audience needs a clear idea of where characters are going and what's motivating them. Kelly forces you to connect the dots, and often you can't. He also skewers the national mantra, issued after 9/11 (when Kelly started writing this), that the tragic attacks marked the 'end of irony.' The director is warning that, as cities burn and freedoms disappear, irony may be the only thing left.
Cherry Road Films
Eden Roc Productions
MHF Zweite Academy Film
Samuel Goldwyn Pictures
Katerina K. Hyde
Director of Photography
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson
Seann Mitchell Scott
Sarah Michelle Gellar