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Like The Wizard of Oz, Pink Floyd: The Wall, or most David Lynch movies, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko has a reputation among certain viewers for practically begging to be watched while under some influence or another. Kelly’s Southland Tales is no different—except that while Donnie Darko is a fine film regardless of your level of sobriety, the writer-director’s sophomore effort most definitely is not. It’s nearly intolerable, so when the mess comes out on DVD, sooner rather than later, here are a couple of games to speed oblivion for those who rent it: For a more intense experience, drink/smoke/drop whenever “neo-Marxism” is mentioned. Otherwise, simply imbibe whenever a character puts a gun to his or her head. Unenhanced, you’ll sympathize with such desperation soon enough.
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Southland Tales debuted disastrously at Cannes in 2006, prompting Kelly to trim 19 minutes from what must have been an excruciating 163. He claims to have streamlined the story, but it’s still unwieldy, difficult to comprehend, and nearly impossible to tidily sum up. Here goes: It’s 2008, and a nuclear attack on Texas has set off World War III and turned the United States into an Orwellian nightmare, with a comprehensive surveillance program called USIDent instituted by those pesky Republicans. (One of whom, a politician’s wife played by Miranda Richardson, uses it to assassinate people at her whim.) Access to oil is a thing of the past, leading a deeply weird man named Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) to invent a perpetual-motion machine that allows for fuel-free transport (and, apparently, world domination, though that part’s less clear).
Meanwhile, there’s a movie star, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), who disappeared shortly after the attacks and was later found in the desert with his memory erased. He doesn’t remember that he’s married to a presidential candidate’s daughter (Mandy Moore), so Boxer takes up with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star and talk-show host, and they write a screenplay about an apocalyptic future that involves a L’Engle-like tear in the space-time continuum. There are a couple of war veterans who are mentally fucked after their involvement in a friendly-fire incident (Justin Timberlake, who also narrates, and Seann William Scott, who actually plays twins, but that’s too nonsensical to get into). And then there are the neo-Marxists, quite oddly played predominantly by Saturday Night Live stars such as Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz, and Nora Dunn. The gist of it is that the apocalypse is at hand, and that the world will end, as it’s repeated ad nauseam, “not with a whimper, but with a bang.”
The best that can be said about Southland Tales is that Kelly apparently intended to ramble: The film is divided into three parts, but it begins with the fourth chapter. (The first three installments—the “prequel saga,” according to the movie’s Web site—are available in graphic-novel form.) Donnie Darko also inspired companion literature—and was also at times incomprehensible—but its rabbit holes were controlled, thoughtful, and intriguing; Southland Tales feels like, to quote one of its characters, the “nervous breakdown of the century.” Its tone is all over the place. One minute, Timberlake is quoting from Revelation; the next, Gellar offers porn-star wisdom such as “Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.” The casting of SNL vets exemplifies the film’s confusion: It’s doomsday. (Even Zelda Rubinstein, Poltergeist’s don’t-go-into-the-light lady, is here.) But then you see the comedians and chuckle. But then they start blowing people’s heads off. Kelly’s attempt to force humor into the story is so awkward it quickly becomes as ridiculous as the tangled plot itself.
With such absurdity, it’s futile to analyze the worth of anyone’s performance—one imagines that the Rock was encouraged to do odd, girly things like tap his fingers together nervously, for example, and that Gellar actually nailed her character’s stiff, dumb-blonde motivation. One of the better scenes involves a Timberlake musical number. But it’s mostly compelling because it’s a friggin’ song-and-dance sequence in the midst of a bunch of Internet feeds and newscasts, and because he’s only lip-syncing…to the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” and ultimately it’s the great song that gives the movie a lift. It’s a brief respite, but I’ll drink to that.