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November 19, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | November 19, 2007 |

Writer-director Richard Kelly doesn’t make plot summary easy, so let’s take a deep breath at the top here and get this out of the way:

In the world of Southland Tales, Kelly’s second feature, nuclear bombs were set off throughout Texas on July 4, 2005. Three years later, chaos reigns — World War III is being fought on several fronts, the U.S. has run out of time to develop alternative fuel sources, the nightly news is rife with domestic car bombings, the government requires Interstate Travel Visas, and a presidential election looms — but life in California proceeds apace, with surfers on the waves, frat boys in the bars, and left-wingers plotting their hapless revolutions. An underground neo-Marxist group based in Venice Beach seeks to disrupt the election and cripple USIDent, an Orwellian surveillance agency created in the wake of the attacks. A major actor who supports the Republican Party wakes up in the desert with a case of amnesia, and a cop recently back from a tour of duty in Iraq grapples with the fact that he injured a good friend with friendly fire. Oh, and that good friend, now disfigured, guards an alternative-fuel source from a rotating offshore turret. And the alternative-fuel source, which harnesses tidal power, was discovered by a mad scientist who looks like a transsexual Wallace Shawn (played, appropriately, by Shawn) and is continually surrounded by a coterie of creepy old women and one remarkably underdressed Asian vamp.

In short, this is dystopia as joyride, and plot is both everything and nothing. Kelly has said that he wanted Southland Tales to be “like a big piece of pop art.” Well, he nailed the pop part. The cast is a perverse amalgam of Hollywood wannabes, has-beens, and never-weres: Justin Timberlake, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson, Christopher Lambert, Mandy Moore, John Larroquette, and a perplexing bevy of mostly fossilized “Saturday Night Live” veterans — Amy Poehler, Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri, and Jon Lovitz. (I wanted to add a drum roll for emphasis before one of those last two names, but choosing between them caused a small but noticeable seizure, not unlike their performances.) Miranda Richardson and Shawn are on board, possibly to anchor their fellow actors and keep them from floating into deep space, but it’s a tough chore made tougher by obstacles like the silver space suit that revoltingly accentuates Shawn’s paunch throughout. This movie’s antonym is “dignified.”

That’s not to say it lacks kicks. Kelly gets points for populating a carnivalesque story set in a futuristic Los Angeles with a sideshow’s worth of real-life pop-culture freaks turned into even poppier fictional freaks. He’s also said the movie was inspired by the work of Thomas Pynchon, and, at least in the naming of characters, the inspiration took. How are these for Pynchonesque handles? Baron Von Westphalen, Pilot Abilene, Boxer Santaros, and Krysta Now.

Gellar plays Krysta, a former porn star branching out into reality television, a perfume line, a power drink, and music (her hit single is “Teen Horniness is Not a Crime”). Johnson is Santaros, the movie star sans memory, a muscular mountain who nervously taps his fingers together at the first sign of trouble (a choice of tic that’s annoying the second time around, maddening the fifteenth). These two propel much of the action, but Kelly is tripped up time and again by what some might praise as “the level of his ambition,” but what I prefer to call “his absolute lack of storytelling ability.”

There are several ways to make a movie that’s sure to attract a cult, and Kelly seems determined to build a career by checking them off one by one. Two surefire models are the cryptic movie that takes itself very seriously and the wild spectacle that doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Kelly’s debut, Donnie Darko, was decidedly the former, a satiric-but -mostly-spooky koan about time travel and a troubled teenager’s destiny, still picked over by fanatical interpreters who flock to midnight screenings. Southland Tales, one hopes while sitting through it, is an example of the latter formula — like Rocky Horror or Hedwig, a movie that will live on because groups of people wish to assemble and shout along with the occasional, spirited musical numbers, the good jokes, and the so-bad- they’re-good jokes.

There are some genuinely big laughs in Southland Tales, including a TV advertisement that features two SUVs getting to know each other Biblically, and Krysta’s bubble-headed observance, prominent in the movie’s marketing campaign, that “Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic then they originally predicted.” But many other lines are funny only if the movie is laughing at itself. For instance: “The fourth dimension will collapse on itself….you stupid bitch.” Or this line, perhaps the perfect reflection of the dominant tone: “Who are you going to believe, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist or a two-bit porn star?”

Astoundingly, though, there’s evidence that Kelly sees his latest creation as something more earnest. In interviews, he has spoken about the energy crisis, the sincerity of his characters despite their eccentricities (as opposed to their being campy), and how he likes to believe that T.S. Eliot’s famous line about the world ending “not with a bang but a whimper” (which Southland reverses) represents the poet “having a premonition about global warming.” Such strong (if boilerplate) political concerns and poetic misreadings are married, in Kelly’s vision, with a climax involving a giant zeppelin, a floating ice cream truck, and more silliness about time travel and possible religious overtones. It can be dangerous or pointless to worry too much about an artist’s intentions, but it seems crucial here. If Kelly intended this as a consciously hammy fantasia with a dash of cultural and spiritual commentary, he’s made a pretty bad movie that nonetheless provides some fun. If he thinks this is a trenchant indictment masquerading as a lark, he’s made a terrible movie and almost all the laughs are on him.

Reviewing Pynchon’s most recent novel, Against the Day, in the New
York Times
, Michiko Kakutani described it as “a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex … Dozens of characters are sent on mysterious (often half-baked) quests that intersect mysteriously with the mysterious quests of people they knew in another context, and dozens of portentous plot lines are portentously twined around even more portentous events…”

Kelly has lived up to his literary influences more than he may have wished.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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