Southland Tales  (2006)

Back in the late sixties and early seventies there was a time when visionary film artists were granted unprecedented indulgence, because old studio business models were failing and nobody knew anymore how to mass-produce hits, so they were willing to try everything.  And some very indulgent films got made — some legendary, some laughable.  We have here something that feels, under its slick modern sheen, like an acid flashback to those glorious days.  Richard Kelly, the creator of the twisty and pretentious time-travel story Donnie Darko, is certainly qualified to take on this kind of job.

A film of this depth and complexity really needs to be watched more than once.  As soon as I got through it I immediately knew that if I was going to write about it, I would need a second viewing.  There was just one problem: I don’t wanna watch this any more.

For one thing, it’s long.  I often hear fellow movie buffs saying “could have been fifteen minutes shorter” or “they should have tightened it up by about twenty minutes”.  Normally I am unsympathetic to those who just want their movies to demand less attention span, but in this case...  for a while there I was seriously thinking that the amount of material this movie should cut out might exceed the amount it should keep.

It turned out not quite that bad.  Most of the excess is in the first half.  For instance, the opening is ten solid minutes of voiceover exposition.  For a world only mildly different from our own.  Even The Fellowship Of The Ring only used seven minutes.  And the plot doesn’t really kick into motion until minute 25.  But the second half does move along at a reasonable pace.

Another thing.  This movie contains lots of satire.  For satire to work, it has to (a) recognizably ring true as a reflection of our world, and (b) be funny.  If not both, it needs to at least manage one.  Most of the time this film manages neither.  When it does manage any hits, they are on easy targets which aren’t worth spending our time on when such Big Issues are afoot.

Yeah, Big Issues.  This was originally a story about blackmail in Hollywood, then 9/11 happened, so suddenly it had to be about homeland security instead.  So we end up spending our time on a bunch of Hollywood types and asking ourselves...  in a big story about the politics of combating terror, why are we paying attention to trivial stuff like this? Especially after that ten minute introduction.  “Big issues, big issues, nuclear attack, national ID cards, surveillance state, energy shortage...  I’m here to tell you about this flaky action movie star and his porn queen girlfriend.”

It’s all full of clever layers of ideas, in a way that’s worthy of sixties counterculture storytelling.  Like, the new tidal power generator has the same name as the new drug people are taking.  They’re both part of the same thing somehow!  Whoop de doo.  There’s a lot of Philip K. Dick influence...  but Richard Kelly is just too small to be a Dick.

Speaking of influences, there are obvious homages/imitations of better weird-movie makers...  faux Lynch, ersatz Gilliam, maybe some counterfeit Charlie Kaufman.  And with distribution and editing battles, Kelly even reenacted some of the drama around Brazil, which he admits was a major influence.  Though unlike Gilliam, Kelly did bow to some studio cutting.  (Thankfully so, because unlike Gilliam, Kelly made a film that needs plenty of cutting.)  Unfortunately, instead of insisting that Kelly tighten up the story, the studio instead insisted that Kelly focus on the bankable actors — Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar.  The result?  The true central character of the story is left as the number three role!  This definitely worsens the problem of overemphasizing trivia over the big picture.

One bit that Kelly didn’t get from Dick or Gilliam or any of those others is his desire to make the film be partly a musical.  That plan didn’t work out — there’s only one musical production number left, featuring Justin Timberlake.  Who is, for no reason I can comprehend, the narrator.

Again with the stunt casting.  Kelly wanted to take typecast performers and show unexpected sides to them.  Well congratulations, you certainly succeeded at that goal.  He got The Rock to mock his image without the slightest trace of his usual wink to the audience, he got Seann William Scott to play completely noncomedically, he got Mandy Moore to play shrewish, he got Jon Lovitz to play a dirty cop.  And so on.

It doesn’t always work: as a serious actor, Dwayne Johnson is kind of like a fairly well done CGI monster: it mostly looks just the way it should, but somehow you’re never quite convinced.  And Gellar’s performance sometimes slips from making the character seem like an airhead to making the actress seem like an airhead.

In the end it gets science fictional — the same order of comic-book buzzword science fiction that Donnie Darko was based on.  And it gets dramatic, and the world might be ending, and it all seems to be halfway meaning something...  then Kelly plugs in the Jesusizer and starts cranking the christ-symbolism knob up to like 1300 milliNeos, but only about 500 makes it up onto the screen, largely because when people are being sacrificed with their arms outstretched, their sacrifices don’t manage to be for anything.

(It doesn’t help that this takes place on a giant blimp that’s styled after Thunderbird 2.)

Soon after viewing, I concluded that about the only way that ending could make sense was if it was written, like Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, to use its own plot as a parody of the gimmicks of other movies.  Meaningless milliNeos would fit right into such a design.  Now if that’s the case, I figured, maybe this does have some real thought and depth to it.  On the other hand, if Kelly really meant all that crap sincerely......

By all reports, he really meant it sincerely.

This is the sort of movie that is likely to attract a minority of vociferous defenders, who will probably keep its memory alive and devote fansites to it for years.  Amazingly, the TomatoMeter actually found 40% of reviews to be positive.  Don’t be fooled; despite lots of interesting ingredients this film is every bit as big a failure as you’ve heard it is.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it.  This is one for the bad movie lover with refined tastes.  It might sorely try your patience and attention span, but for those with the endurance this is a rare and delicate vintage of crap film fun.  Personally, I love it when bad films get all pretentious, like Zardoz or I Know Who Killed Me, so in some ways this one is right up my alley.  It's just a bit too punishing to want to enjoy again any time soon.