SOUTHLAND TALES

Southland Tales Movie Review

R, 145 min, 2006

Director: Richard Kelly
Writer: Richard Kelly
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott

Sometimes, I wish I could write a negative review and still recommend the film it concerns. Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is a surrealist epic, an apocalyptic thriller, a futuristic satire, a political comedy, and an utter mess. It’s an insane affair which is the kind of film that goes over the top, doubles back, and then goes over the top again. Normally, this is a good thing, but Kelly’s film is so filled to brimming over with half-baked notions, bizarre characters and connections between them, and confounding plot twists that it is virtually impossible to understand.

The film concerns…there’s no satisfying or clear way to finish that sentence. Let us attempt then to untangle the plot. In a futuristic Los Angeles (well, 2008), there exists (let’s see if I’ve got this straight): Boxer Santoros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a Hollywood action star with Republican ties; Krysta Kapowski, aka Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn actress with a socio-political agenda with whom Boxer is having an affair; a Bush-esque senator (Holmes Osborne) whose daughter (Mandy Moore) is married to Boxer, whose wife (Miranda Richardson) is the director of the NSA and seems to bark commands from a high-tech monitoring station, and whose advisor (John Larroquette) would be a Karl Rove-ian asset were he not quite so clueless; Roland Taverner, an LAPD officer (Seann William Scott) who has been kidnapped and replaced by a double (a similar fate to that which may have befallen the action star); and a “neo-Marxist” movement that is attempting to stage a revolution against the current government.

They include characters such as Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), a mad scientist experimenting on soldiers, and his cadre of followers, including the exotic and heavily made-up Serpentine (Bai Ling), Dr. Inga Von Westphalen (Beth Grant), who is the Baron’s mother (how old would Beth Grant have to be to play Wallace Shawn’s mother?), a dwarf witch (Zelda Rubenstein from Poltergeist and TV’s Picket Fences) and porn director Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn).

The film has other hangers-on, such as a mysterious man in a truck (Christopher Lambert), a bizarre performance troupe that includes Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler, a long way from Saturday Night Live, who appear to be attempting to…who knows? There’s also Jon Lovitz as a blonde LAPD officer whose interactions with Boxer and Traveler lead to a COPS-esque moment of documentary violence, various spoutings of the Book of Revelation in select verses, an unrecognizable Kevin Smith (looking like a gray bearded Philip Seymour Hoffman) as Simon Theory, who sits back and…I dunno, and a musical performance or two involving Rebekha Del Rio (of David Lynch’s similarly anarchic L.A. saga Mulholland Drive) and (finally) Justin Timberlake, who plays former military soldier turned narrator Private Pilot Abilene.

The film was written and directed by Richard Kelly, who previously made the comparably confounding but infinitely more fascinating Donnie Darko (2001) and co-wrote Tony Scott’s scarcely less enigmatic Domino (2005). This film is intermittently wonderful and maddening, ultimately making about as little sense as I think I can fathom. What are these characters doing here on the cusp of the Apocalypse? What does it matter? If the film is too goofy to be taken seriously, it’s also too bizarre to comprehend. Still, it’s strangely watchable. You have to give it to Kelly: when he goes for broke, he obliterates the piggy bank. Let’s call this a non-recommendation with a wink. Those who would respond to such know who you are.

Note: The film premiered at 160 minutes at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival to only a slightly less baffled response. Apparently, it also contained the (now entirely omitted) subplot involving Janeane Garofalo as General Teena MacArthur (no relation, I’m sure). Hmm… Writer-director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) does appear uncredited.

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