By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Southland Tales,” Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2007]
Two roads diverged, and director Richard Kelly took the path not taken. The cult wunderkind behind “Donnie Darko” could have taken all that indie cred, gone Hollywood, and directed a sequel to a superhero movie like so many others before him. Instead he made the shambolic “Southland Tales,” and he took so long doing it that his vision of an alternate future is already almost an alternate history at this point.
Kelly’s vision of an encroaching apocalypse begins on July 4th way back in 2005, when nuclear weapons detonated outside of Abilene, TX start the United States on the march to World War III. Three years later, with the 2008 presidential election fast approaching, the increasingly powerful Republicans sets their sights on California’s 55 electoral votes (their new party logo: one elephant mounting another). That’s where Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) comes in. He’s the biggest movie star in the world, married to the daughter (Mandy Moore) of the G.O.P.’s Vice Presidential candidate, and his affair with a porn star and talk show host named Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) threatens to rock the campaign with scandal even as he’s doing research for his next role with a confused Los Angeles police officer named Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott). Or, wait, is his name Ronald?
What, exactly, does any of that have to do with the end of the world? Not a whole hell of a lot, it seems. Reading through the press notes, you find that Kelly was working on this “Donnie Darko” follow-up before 9/11, but reconfigured the piece to reflect the world after it. It eventually becomes clear that for all its political bluster, “Southland Tales”‘s interests lie elsewhere. Though it occasionally invokes the Book of Revelations, nothing concretely calamitous happens after the chilling opening sequence, where the Abilene attack is presented from the perspective of a kid fooling around with a camcorder at an Independence Day block party. The rest is a concatenation of literary references and pop culture satire, a sort of “Dr. Strangelove” by way of “The Rundown.”
Though high art gets a significant nod Justin Timberlake’s somber voiceover refers to T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” as well as the famous Robert Frost poem about the two roads it’s the lowbrow that provides Kelly with most of his targets. The references are so numerous and diverse that every viewer will observe different nods and winks. Sketch comedy devotees will spot the incredible number of cast members from “Saturday Night Live” and “MadTV” (including Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, and Will Sasso). Some will try to wrap their heads around Christopher Lambert in a tie-dyed shirt. My own particular obsession: the endless similarities with the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, from the name of Boxer’s next character (Jericho Cane, a cop-on-the-edge who must save the world from an impending Armageddon, originally played by Arnold in “End of Days”) to shared thematic obsessions over doubling and twins (the number “2” appears everywhere, from Roland’s bulletproof vest to the name of the mysterious “Deep Throat 2”).
With so many different threads and so little driving the movie (if Jericho Cane could stop the end of the world, the schizophrenic Boxer clearly cannot) “Southland Tales” basically adds up to the sum of its gags and ideas. Some of them kill Kelly’s jab at crawls on the news is a true knee-slapper some of them just die the fake car commercial that plays on Hummers and hummers is too unrealistic to be truly funny. There’s a sequence that could have been plucked from “Melrose Place” and a nearly full-length music video for The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” starring Timberlake and a bevy of sexy nurses.
For all its cleverness and evocative imagery, “Southland Tales” is an incredibly uneven movie. By their nature, amnesiacs don’t have a character, and this movie has three of them at its center. Some sequences are wildly inventive (Mirror reflections out of sync with the people in them!), some are wildly infuriating (Zeppelin launch sequences that go on for ten minutes!). “Southland Tales” defies good and bad categorization because it’s hard to tell at any moment whether Kelly even wants to be good, or minds being bad, or even cares which is which.