CANNES: Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" Fails Lofty Goals

by | May 27, 2006 | Comments

By now the disastrous opening of Richard Kelly‘s "Southland Tales" at Cannes is infamous, with the majority of the viewing press vastly disappointed, if not entirely appalled, by Kelly’s much-anticipated follow up to cult hit "Donnie Darko."

Those who loved "Darko" for its quirky, unsettling ideas and themes of time travel, self-sacrifice, and tragic destiny may actually find similar bits and pieces to love in "Southland." That said, with its grotesquely excessive 160 minutes, over-the-top near-futuristic sets and characters, and a misplaced gravitas inlaid with manic comedy, Kelly’s ambitious effort will unfortunately be remembered as his sophomore slump.

"Southland Tales" opens in the year 2005 in Abilene, Texas, as a neighborhood full of families celebrates with a Fourth of July block party. Fun and jubilance are soon interrupted by an explosion and a looming mushroom cloud, the marker of a worldwide fuel war that will usher in the next few years of border militance, omnipresent Big Brother-style surveillance, and increasing political unrest. Cue narration by war veteran Pilot Abilene — the delicate, deliberately Southern-tinged voice of everyone’s favorite pop sensation-cum-actor, Justin Timberlake — and Kelly launches into an overlong expository montage to set up his near-future dystopia, with Timberlake’s early promises of doom and gloom, Armageddon, the end of the world, all set in — where else? –Los Angeles.

But this set up happens in the first ten minutes or so, and we have a loooong way to go before the film’s oft-repeated T.S. Eliot line, "This is the way the world ends," mercifully comes to fruition. First we must meet famous actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), who wakes up in Hermosa Beach with a case of amnesia, a porn-star lover, and a movie script he’s written, entitled "The Power," which uncannily imitates/predicts events in the present and foretells the end of the world in three days.

In the next two plus hours we will meet Boxer’s wife, Madeline Frost (Mandy Moore), her NSA head mother Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), her up-for-reelection senator husband (Holmes Osborne), and his eccentric German industrialist partner Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn). Across town, Boxer’s forgotten his identity and taken up with the adult actress/aspiring media conglomerate, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who’s got ties to a network of discontented Neo-Marxists (Cheri Oteri and many of her fellow "SNL" alums) who have set a disastrous plan in motion to bring down the government in a bloody Fourth of July coup.

Oh yeah, and the Neo-Marxists have kidnapped LAPD officer Roland Taverner and are using his twin brother Ronald (both played by Seann William Scott) as a pawn in their revolution.

Kelly’s attempts to weave together too many convergent storylines (a Neo-Marxist blackmail conspiracy, the discovery of a limitless fuel source, Boxer Santaros’ noir-ish adventure, Ronald’s quest to find his brother) give him tenuous cause to add a cacophony of supporting characters to the mix (yes, in addition to the central figures already mentioned). Never again will you see Kevin Smith, John Larroquette, Christopher Lambert, Zelda Rubenstein, Bai Ling, and Booger from "Revenge of the Nerds" in the same movie, which alone may or may not be a reason to give "Southland" at least one viewing.

Further confusing things is the mash-up of genres in these "Tales:" science fiction, political thriller, action, comedy, musical and spiritual drama all vie for attention in Kelly’s epic, resulting not in a satisfactory balance of genre flavors but in a case of severe tonal indigestion. While the overt references to Eliot’s "The Hollow Men" and the Biblical-literary musings of Pilot Abilene do lend the story a central, if ambiguous, sense of purpose, any philosophical meaning Kelly meant to infuse his film with are lost within the confused mishmash — not unlike his "Donnie Darko," whose metaphysical ideas worked better on a much smaller, less ambitious scale.

If anything, Kelly’s critical reaming at Cannes has reportedly led to him taking "Southland" back to the editing room, where one hopes he can trim his epic down to a more endurable two hours. I’ll also cross my fingers that he keeps one of the best and unpredictable scenes in the film, a spirited and melancholy "music video" of The Killers’ "All These Things That I’ve Done" — performed beautifully and wrenchingly by none other than Justin Timberlake.

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