I know what you’ve read. Yeah, they booed “Southland Tales” at Cannes. They do that a lot. And, no, Richard Kelly isn’t a prophet. He doesn’t speak for our moment any more revealingly than Bill O’Reilly does, though certainly he is more interesting in his disorder. He made a movie that became a cult touchstone, and as with many bluntly provocative films of that variety, “Donnie Darko” circles many more ideas than it consummates.
Between the anticipation that ushered in “Southland Tales” as Kelly’s “Darko” follow-up and the brutal festival reception that threatened to crush it, there’s something to be said for the fact that the movie has even opened in American theaters. Though the version now at The Michigan Theater is apparently much different than the earlier cut that earned the film its reputation, the final product is as staggeringly idiotic as all the nasty press suggested. And yet by the time the movie gets to the end of its 144 minutes – down 20 minutes from that first cut – it also strikes a weirdly poignant rhythm, a big, stupid, sweet and possibly insightful dissection of American culture.
The movie is basically a series of loosely constructed stunts that play on post-Sept. 11 politics and pop culture. The film opens with a nuclear nightmare set in the Texas of summer 2005 and, after an interlude that imagines World War III, the reinstatement of the draft and hyper-Bush chaos in Washington, cuts to California in 2008 amid the next presidential election. There’s a flash of a Clinton-Lieberman Democratic ticket, but as you might imagine, the film’s sole interest is in the Republican side. The inside of that campaign, particularly its efforts to destroy a sort of latter-day Weather Underground resistance driven by “neo-Marxists,” becomes the chief narrative thread.
If that makes it sound like the movie makes sense, it doesn’t. It features Sarah Michelle Gellar as the Barbara Walters of a porn-star version of “The View,” The Rock as an amnesiac right-wing actor married to the daughter of a presidential candidate (Mandy Moore), Bai Ling as a sexed-up lurker who knows the secrets of the world (actually, that part does make sense), a heavy “Saturday Night Live” collective and Seann William Scott as ostensible twin brothers. Oh, and there’s a voice-over by Justin Timberlake, who at one point leads a musical number to a Killers song. He also shoots people on occasion.
There’s more, much more than this review can contain or that the movie can logically survive. Pop spectacle is rarely this stocked, but the size of the ensemble complicates a film without a clear foundation in the first place.
The movie’s genre limbo and narrative flamboyance hardly temper the clutter. Its actual jokes are almost never funny, but the film itself often is. There are moments of socially incisive drama – at one point, a character stumbles on a young man about to take his life because he’s been drafted – but Kelly diffuses most of them with shrugging irreverence. There is also a time-travel subplot, and even in a film with a climax involving a flying truck, a bazooka and a blimp, there are long stretches that are uneventful and simply boring.
Part of the reason this confusion doesn’t totally dismantle the movie is because it’s clear Kelly is just fooling around. His political ruminations are neither particularly sophisticated nor original, and his movie is nothing more than a farcical, anxiety-whoring caricature of American culture. But there is also release in that. Kelly’s brazen manipulation of headlines coupled with the film’s cheerful lack of subtlety has an unhinged charm that allows him to gun it creatively and for the audience to embrace his successes as well as his failures. This is also true of the actors, who take each scene as it comes, running with their ludicrous, ham-fisted characters without a single wink at the camera.
That isn’t a recommendation, and no one should mistake “Southland Tales” for a functional narrative. But as the film comes to a close with a dance number that somehow seems to bring together the story, it finally feels rewarding. This is a violent, crude, inexplicable movie, yes, but the experience is not. If you have the time to spare – really, really to spare – “Southland Tales” certainly doesn’t hold out on you.
2.5 out of 5 stars
At the Michigan Theater