Southland Tales
I’ll tell you what’s inconceivable – this movie!

Theatrical Release Date: 11/14/2007
Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Nora Dunn, Wallace Shawn, Bai Ling, Mandy Moore, Cheri Oteri, John Larroquette, Amy Poehler, Holmes Osborne, Miranda Richardson, Jon Lovitz, Kevin Smith, Curtis Armstrong, Beth Grant, Christopher Lambert, Zelda Rubenstein

As one could ascertain from reading my profile page, I’m a big fan of “Donnie Darko”, making it my favorite film of 2001. I found writer/director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi time bender set amidst the backdrop of the 1980s thought-provoking and a wonderful blend of tone and style.

When I had first heard about his next endeavor, “Southland Tales”, I was hoping for a similar experience; allowing his skewed take on reality to bring about something fresh and unique. I knew that he had assembled a ridiculous set of actors (the cast listing above took longer to write than some college essays) and was hoping that the wide range of their talents would mesh together somehow. In short, I was going on faith.

Then I heard about the film’s premier at Cannes, drawing scathing reviews and a protracted session of edits – delaying the film substantially. Eventually, I began to forget about this film, leaving it on my DVD rental queue to appear whenever it popped onto the medium. Its limited run in theaters barely came through San Diego and I figured that the lack of promotion and buzz either meant the film had morphed into a work of genius … or more likely, a work of madness.

Trying to explain “Southland Tales” is sort of like trying to explain a color to a blind man without referencing that or any other color. Go ahead and try. Something is “green” because … yeah, that’s right. You can’t do it can you?

I suppose if pressed, I’d say that the film is roughly about the end of the world. Terrorist acts and the resulting anti-terrorist fervor and legislation have turned the world into a war zone. A big brother state has come to power and being drafted into military service has become nothing short of a death sentence. Dwayne “I’ve stopped using ‘The Rock’ as my name” Johnson plays a famous actor married to the daughter of a powerful politician. He disappears, only to reappear days later, with no memory of what happened to him. What follows is a convoluted tale of political/anarchist machinations and science fiction theories being bandied about like they were tic tacs.

On the one hand, the socio-political environment that has enveloped the world is a striking commentary on a possible future here in the real world. Many of the subtle laws and government powers on display aren’t far-fetched at all; some of them have come to be in one form or another already.

However, as potentially interesting the world Kelly has created may be, it’s clear that the overall result is a muddled mix of star-fucking and an overly clever attempt to replicate the lightning in a bottle that was “Donnie Darko”. Actually, another way to describe just how far off the reservation this film goes is that if you thought “Donnie Darko” had some issues with making sense … you are NOT ready for this; as “Southland Tales” makes the theory of relativity look like Pythagoras’ theorem.

For the first half of the film or so, there appears to be an attempt to layer the film with both absurdity and theoretical conjecture, combined in some unholy union. Then almost as if a switch was flipped, it’s like Kelly decided that no good could come of it all and said, “just do whatever”. It becomes an orgy of double crosses and alliance switching creating a film that devolves faster than Kentucky with free Wi-Fi access.

The magical assembly of actors makes much of the craziness fun, even if it’s completely devoid of sense. For those of you out there like Elizabeth Edgemont and myself, the sheer pleasure of seeing this celebrity clusterfuck play around in the cinematic sandbox is worth something. Where else would Wallace Shawn, Beth Grant, Curtis Armstrong, Bai Ling and Zelda Rubenstein join forces to not only create what is essentially a perpetual motion energy generator but also get their hands into the political world, seeking power as well as knowledge and wealth?

Then of course there are surreal moments like the Mandy Moore / Sarah Michelle Gellar dance fight. Yes, you read that sentence correctly; no need to refresh your page. That followed a twisted quasi-burlesque bilingual rendition of the American national anthem. Again, you read that correctly.

And could someone please let me know if there’s a film with a significant blimp sequence that doesn’t result in it exploding in mid-air? I’m really beginning to question the safety of sporting events, seeing as nothing good ever seems to come of man trying to float in the air via combustible gases (and I think I’ll pass on a hot air balloon ride while we’re at it).

Just how confusing and odd is this film? Well, let’s just say that if I hadn’t know who made it, I’d have said Gregg Araki. And a true sign of the apocalypse would be financiers trusting Kelly with any of their money for another film of this magnitude. His upcoming feature, “The Box”, doesn’t have the star power involved here so maybe the world isn’t going to end this decade … maybe.

Perhaps the revealing element to exactly who in the world could find enjoyment in the film can be derived from something Elizabeth said after we finished watching it:

“You give out zeros, right Ian?”
“Yup, but do you really think this should get a zero?”
“Well, I suppose the collection of actors should be worth a point – at least to people like you and I.”
“My thinking exactly”.

So there it is – a 1 out of 5 for “Southland Tales”. I’m sure this will make a great example in film courses about how not to piece together your screenplay and blow millions of dollars like it was your weekly allowance. The only reason to see this is to revel in one of, if not the most, diverse set of actors ever to appear in the same film. While I enjoyed it for that aspect, right now I either need a hug, a shower, or both … probably both.