(2006)2Derek ArmstrongEncouraged by the way he made metaphysics accessible in Donnie Darko -- or perhaps just the fact that viewers didn't get tripped up by them -- writer/director Richard Kelly has returned to address all remaining space-time conundrums, and just about anything else you can imagine, in the sprawling, unwieldy Southland Tales. But audiences weren't so eager to join him this time -- first at Cannes, where their reaction prompted a massive overhaul that shelved the film more than a year, and then in theaters, where it vanished inside two weeks.
Southland Tales is certainly a ridiculous film, but whether that was accidental or intentional gets blurred by Kelly's aggressively comedic version of the apocalyptic near future. How else to explain the casting of such TV castoffs and SNL retreads as Jon Lovitz, John Larroquette, Cheri Oteri, and Nora Dunn, when Darko's cachet clearly could have garnered better talent? (Unless, after using Patrick Swayze in his first film, Kelly was just fixated on reviving careers.) Even the heavy lifting is left to B-level actors like Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Johnson comes off most hilariously, playing a character whose goofy name, Boxer Santaros, is typical of Kelly's approach. An amnesiac action hero married to the daughter of a vice presidential candidate, Boxer spends much of the movie with his hands twitching in front of his face -- Johnson's laughable interpretation of shell shock. "Laughable" is the best way to encapsulate a would-be epic that tries to tackle Big Brother, terrorism, nuclear holocaust, neo-Marxism, celebrity, alternative energy, drug abuse, the Iraq War, and time travel, all drenched in Justin Timberlake's soporific biblical narration. There are enough little moments that echo the best parts of Donnie Darko -- both thematically and stylistically -- that Southland Tales isn't a total waste. Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days is also fondly evoked on occasion. Still, Kelly's next project will have to be heaps more coherent, or it will be his last.