01 April 2011

Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006)

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Southland Tales is a monumental mess of a movie. It's a huge, colossal disaster. I really can't think of any way to describe it. Set in a contemporary, post-apocalyptic America which, after a number of orchestrated nuclear attacks, has devolved into a Balkanized police state watched over by a PATRIOT Act-on-steroids aided government, the film concerns the actions of Boxer Santaros, a politically connected actor, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, along with a group of anti-government rebels known as the "Neo-Marxists." And it's narrated by Justin Timberlake.


The Rock and Mr "SexyBack".

And the hits keep on coming - Wallace Shawn plays a possibly evil, definitely mad, scientist, who harnesses the oceans to generate all the power the U.S. War machine will ever need, Jon Lovitz plays a racist cop in a blonde wig, and Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a porn star who hosts a The View-esque daytime talk show (with a panel of other porn stars who discuss current events while sitting on deck chairs along Venice Beach) who shacks up with Boxer and with him co-writes a script about a psychic L.A. Cop.

The plot is predictably a mess. Three years after the attacks, and on the eve of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, Boxer, the son-on-law of GOP VP candidate Bobby Frost, goes missing in Nevada and then re-appears several days later. California and its 55 electoral votes is the key to the election. (Don't bother doing the electoral math necessary for that to actually happen.) The Neo-Marxists kidnap Boxer, and hope to use him to swing the election. The government has a mole inside the Neo-Marxists. Some people take some high-tech drugs and Timberlake lip-syncs a song by The Killers. There's a zeppelin. Then the world is falling apart. A cop who has a twin doesn't have a twin, they're duplicates of each other, and if they cross the streams touch it would be bad. They do, and then maybe the world ends, "not with a whimper but with a bang."

OK, I liked the part when Timberlake danced around the room and lip-synched. It was something approaching reality.

If anything the film is something of a time capsule of the Bush years - the liberal paranoia, the conservative jingoism, the stale romanticism of the anti-war movement. It's the low-brow, outre counterpart of Aaron Sorkin's preachy TV show, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, a show that ranted for 40 minutes every week at how stupid Middle America had to be to vote for Bush, twice. Looking back on that time, just a few short years ago, is like staring at a photo of yourself from when you had a really bad cold and were all sweaty and pale and feverish. It's you, but a you you barely recognize and would prefer to not if given the choice. But I really think I'm giving Kelly too much credit here. The guy can't write a script to save his life and his concept of drama or genuine human relationships makes the Geico caveman commercials seem sophisticated. But he somehow latched onto the zeitgeist of the aughts in a weird way, and ran with it, for 144 minutes and $17 million. I can only wonder what I'd have thought of the film had I seen it in a first run.

I don't think I'm surprising anyone when I state that Southland Tales isn't a very good movie. There's too much bad writing and bad acting for it to be objectively considered a quality motion picture. And quality notwithstanding it's at least 40 minutes too long. But it's also, in stretches, incredibly entertaining. The absurdity of it all guarantees it - the fact that so many big names, if not big talents, are attached to it, that it actually got green-lit, that someone thought up all this crap, is astonishing, and on occasion astonishingly funny. I mean, it played at Cannes, for God's sake. In competition. Never mind that it's an awful movie, somehow, somebody somewhere stuck it up there against The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Volver.

Film history is laden with directors making an acclaimed movie and then, given something approaching carte blanche, making a giant failure on their next effort. Southland Tales is no Heaven's Gate - no studios were harmed in the making of this picture - but it's far worse.


Paul C. said...

Dude, of course it played at Cannes. During the Bush era, the best way for an American filmmaker to court the French cinephile crowd was to bash Dubya onscreen.

Good review. Thanks again for participating this year.

Stacia said...

Wallace Shawn plays a possibly evil, definitely mad, scientist

Wally, no!

One has to wonder how films like these will be seen after history has passed them by. It seems as though a lot of us like the era of, say, the 1930s so much that we watch almost any film from that decade and enjoy it on some level. Perhaps "Southland Tales" will end up being one of those movies.

Caroline said...

Gee golly! Jon Lovitz, Wallace Shawn, Justin Timberlake, and "Dwayne" The Rock "Johnson" together in one movie? I can't believe I've never heard of this! Well, I guess I can after reading your review, as it sounds like the kind of movie everyone would want to bury. My condolences. Great review, though!