This is the way a career ends, this is the way a career ends, not with a bang, but with an enormous, turgid, excruciatingly slow drain.
To call Richard Kelly's Southland Tales a mess would be an act of kindness. Calling it a mess would be like digging up a corpse of a man buried twenty years and referring to him as "newly deceased." The Donnie Darko director's second feature has been sitting on a shelf since it debuted at Cannes two years ago, and the fight for its release is one that nobody wins. This isn't even one for fans of bad movies, because there is nothing to laugh at here. Southland Tales is such a dismal failure, it doesn't even succeed as an object of ridicule.
Trying to explain what Southland Tales is about feels pointless. You would have better luck opening up a phone book and reading random names. The results would likely be more cogent than what I just saw. In the near future of 2008, America is recovering from a nuclear explosion that went off in Texas. Still embroiled in the war in Iraq, the U.S. government makes even greater strides in eroding the civil liberties of its citizens as Republicans jockey to maintain their hold on the White House. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stars as Boxer Santaros, a leading action star who is married to the daughter of the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket. Boxer recently fell off the map, the victim of some kind of twisted conspiracy. He has returned to Venice Beach, CA, with a screenplay and a new pornstar girlfriend, Krista Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Boxer is the guy everyone is looking for, from one side of the political map to the other (though, for a walking box-office bonanza, the common man seems totally oblivious to his presence). He's the key to something, even if exactly what he's the key to is up for discussion.
Not that you're likely to understand that from watching the movie. Kelly tries to cover his bases by opening with a tacked-on explanatory montage, but it's as jumbled as the rest of the film. I have a better idea of what was happening because I read the prequel comic book, which is actually chapters 1-3 of Kelly's script. Perhaps mimicking Star Wars in a fatally executed nerdgasm, Southland Tales begins with a title card revealing that this is chapter 4. So, as a viewer, you will start off being hopelessly lost, but don't blame yourselves. It's not really you that is stumbling around blindly through this two-and-a-half hour nightmare. Kelly tries to juggle a million different ideas about the space-time continuum, the Bible, Marxism, feminism, dreams--you name it, the guy tosses it in there. You even get Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to the Killers in an out-of-nowhere, Budweiser-fueled Busby Berkeley number. That may be my favorite moment in all of Southland Tales, just for being so absurd. If not that, then the scene where the Prime Minister of Japan gets his hand cut off and his screams are punctuated with a ringing gong. Ouch, racist much?
The fact that Richard Kelly tried to make this abominable beast as some sort of sci-fi satire is just hubris to the Nth degree. His fetish for late-night TV sketch comedy is evident in the casting; Will Sasso from Mad TV and SNL cast members Cheri Oteri, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, and Amy Poehler all have prominent roles in the movie. I have no problem with those choices, all of those actors have made me laugh on multiple occasions. This isn't a sketch comedy show, however, and structuring your entire film like a series of improvisations strung together willy nilly just adds further to the jumble. Though, it does get him out of having to come up with pesky transitions that might give Southland Tales a semblance of cohesion.
I can't even begin to scratch the surface of what is wrong with Southland Tales. There has to be a Big Bang somewhere along Richard Kelly's timeline that will show us just how this train jumped the rails. My theory is that it happened in 10th grade, which is when I suspect Kelly started this script. His rudimentary knowledge of poetry (he quotes liberally from the most famous verses of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, both of which I think I read my sophomore year) and the fact that he finds the number 69 so funny that he puts it all over everything is clear evidence that there is a fifteen-year-old mind at work in Southland Tales. This meant that Richard Kelly has carried the script around with him in some form or another for about fifteen years before he started shooting. I'd say that's long enough to convince oneself of one's own genius.
Unfortunately for Richard Kelly, he could work from here until doomsday, but I don't think it will ever be enough to wash this blight from our eyes and convince the movie-going audience he is more than a one-hit fluke.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.