Let me present Exhibit A in the case against granting talented young filmmakers extensive creative autonomy: Southland Tales, Richard Kelly's monumentally vapid, messy, aimless saga about the end of days in 2008 California. For his follow-up to 2001's cult hit Donnie Darko, Kelly has adopted a kitchen-sink approach, crafting a tale chockablock with characters, plotlines, and tonal shifts - is it philosophical drama? tongue-in-cheek fantasy? lame-brained sketch comedy? - whose sheer quantity of stuff is inversely proportional to its quality. There's barely a trace of substance to Kelly's fiasco, nor anything like a so-bad-it's-good vibe that might excuse the fact that it consistently falls flat on its face. Information is provided at a rapid clip but doesn't amount to anything; supposedly humorous bits promptly fizzle; and intricate mysteries regularly crop up, only to quickly prove themselves not worth deciphering. To be fair, Darko's elaborate, reality-bending enigmas were also something of a dog-chasing-its-tail ruse, yet at least that indie conveyed an authentic mood of angsty teenager-dom. Southland, on the flip side, merely imparts the feeling of being trapped in a meaningless pop culture blender - equal parts comic book and Philip K. Dick fictions - for 160 minutes.
After a stinging reception at its Cannes debut last year, Kelly trimmed approximately 17 minutes from his original version. It's hard to fathom how misbegotten that excised footage must be, but pondering an even worse Southland Tales is unnecessary given the nonsense left intact in this final cut. Introducing its first segment as Chapter IV - hey, just like George Lucas! - the phantasmagoric film, taking place over a three-day period, concerns Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "Don't Call Me The Rock" Johnson), a famous pugilist married to the daughter (Mandy Moore) of a Republican senator (Holmes Osborne) running for president. Boxer has lost his memory, and is now living with porn star/talk show host/recording artist Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Krysta has ties to revolutionaries known as the Neo-Marxists, who are intent on taking down USIDent, an Orwellian institution run by Miranda Richardson's Big Sister that was created in the aftermath of a July 4th, 2005 nuclear attack on U.S. soil. This assault led to retaliatory military campaigns in Iraq, Syria and other Middle East hotspots, as well as to Justin Timberlake's facially scarred Private Abilene returning home from war to deliver sub-Apocalypse Now narration from the Book of Revelations, and later on, to perform in an arcade-set music video for The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done."
Why is Boxer an amnesiac? Why is he involved with Krysta? How is it that his screenplay is mirroring real life? And what's his relation to Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott), a Neo-Marxist collaborator who also seems to have a twin brother being held prisoner by the Neo-Marxists? The answers to these and other largely meaningless questions can be found in Kelly's new-age ruminations on the time-space continuum and quantum physics-related concepts like Fluid Karma, an energy source created by Baron Von Westphalen's (Wallace Shawn) oceanic perpetual motion machine. Kelly's narrative strands fold back in on themselves at numerous intervals. However, somewhere around the point that current and former Saturday Night Live stars (Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri) begin appearing to spice up the muddled goings-on with joviality, the abundance of simplistic political satire, limp barbs at the media and celebrity, and eleventh grade-level sci-fi mumbo jumbo overwhelm any modicum of intrigue. Not to mention that the director's casting choices make clear his general lack of seriousness, epitomized by his decision to flaunt his child-of-the-'80s coolness by staging a scene featuring Wallace "My Dinner with Andre" Shawn, Curtis "Booger" Armstrong and Zelda "Poltergeist" Rubinstein. Dude! Radical!
Blah. Kelly orchestrates a beautiful (if far from original) tracking shot through a giant party aboard a MegaZeppelin, Moby's score is legitimately haunting, and the sight of Jon Lovitz as a blonde badass cop is unavoidably funny. Yet Southland Tales just goes on and on and on, unaware that it's making little sense or that its biblical overtones - the story eventually amounts to a convoluted depiction of the Messiah's return to earth - aren't bestowing the proceedings with more heft but, conversely, are amplifying the omnipresent air of juvenile pretentiousness. Kelly seems to think that a bank of TV monitors showing cable news suffices as a critique of the media, that constantly referencing Fallujah means he's saying something about Iraq, that having singer Rebekah Del Rio sing an ominous version of the national anthem makes his latest anything like Mulholland Drive, and that using Donnie Darko's wormhole special effects isn't the height of self-derivativeness. He is, simply put, wrong on all counts. "This is how the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang" goes the film's T.S. Elliot-in-reverse refrain. If Kelly doesn't quickly ditch the indulgent impulses on display throughout Southland Tales, it's also the way a promising career will end.