Cast: Dwayne Johnson (Boxer Santaros), Seann William Scott (Roland Taverner/Ronald Taverner), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Krysta Now/Krysta Kapowski), Mandy Moore (Madeline Frost Santaros), Justin Timberlake (Pilot Abilene), Nora Dunn (Cyndi Pinziki), John Larroquette (Vaughn Smallhouse), Jon Lovitz (Bart Bookman), Miranda Richardson (Nana Mae Frost), Wallace Shawn (Baron Von Westphalen), Kevin Smith (Simon Thiery), Bai Ling (Serpentine), Holmes Osbourne (Senator Bobby Frost), Cheri Oteri (Zora Carmichaels), Amy Poehler (Dream/Veronica MacArthur), Lou Taylor Pucci (Martin Kefauver), Janeane Garofalo (General Teena MacArthur), Christopher Lambert (Walter Mung) & Will Sasso (Fortunio Balducci)
A sprawling miasma of half-baked ideas, post-modern swagger, unrestrained ambition, big intentions, bizarre casting, convoluted narrative and visual punch. Writer-director Richard Kelly's follow-up to cult touchstone Donnie Darko is a big mess; but the chaos has the nucleus of a prescient, satirical idea...
It's not an easy film to summarize (or explain), but Southland Tales essentially takes place in a near-future Los Angeles, a few years after a nuclear attack on the USA. Consequently, World War 3 rages overseas as the US retaliates against its enemies, but its citizens are cocooned from the atrocities through overexpose to brain-dead TV, while the crisis has enabled the authorities to implement "USIdent" (a radical Orwellian program that keep tabs on every citizen, 24/7).
Into this sun-drenched dystopia wanders action film star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), who's suffering from short-term amnesia, but has co-written a screenplay called "The Power" with ex-porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) that seems to predict the apocalypse. Oh, and there's also Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), who has assumed his kidnapped twin Ronald's identity, to go undercover as a cop for a Neo-Marxist group....
And I haven't even mentioned Treer, a German company that have created "Liquid Karma"; safe, renewable, eco-friendly energy that turns wave power into a form of "wireless electricity", to end America's dependency on diminishing crude oil. Vaguely holding the stories together is ex-soldier Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), the film's Narrator and dealer of a Liquid Karma drug...
Confused yet? Watching Southland Tales is like trying to remember a dream after waking; it shifts in and out of focus constantly, teasing you to make sense of it and enjoy an epiphany that doesn't (quite) materialize. It loosely covers the same territory of Donnie Darko (preventing the end of the world, again), but without Darko's deceptively simple 80s teen drama clothing...
Many people were puzzled by Darko's time-warp ending, but most people enjoyed the journey, and felt inspired to debate its climax with their friends. In Southland Tales, you'll be scratching your head throughout, and the ending is twice as bizarre, without Darko's sense of dream-logic to cover the cracks.
But that's not to say there isn't merit to Southland Tales. The story clearly got away from writer-director Kelly (who had to extensively re-edit the film after a disastrous preview at Cannes), while also indulging himself by publishing three prequel graphic novels (chapters I-III to the film's IV-VI.) The whole enterprise may have been better as a mini-series; as it's too dense, overpopulated and wilfully confusing to connect with 90% of a film audience.
However, if you're in the remaining 10% bracket (having read the prequels, or perhaps just being accustomed to the sandpit Southland Tales plays in), Kelly's film should maintain your interest and (maybe) inspire rabid devotion. It's a cult film destined for enthusiastic debate amongst Generation Y in the years to come. There are plenty of intriguing ideas, a few compelling sequences, smart visuals, and a satirical edginess that taps into post-9/11 concerns quite well. The idea of a modern population soaking up rays on the beachfront, heads stuck in their iPods, while the sun slowly sets on their existence, is a plausible end in these media-saturated times.
The characters are all one-dimensional cartoons, sadly; Johnson's baffled macho-man, Gellar's sex-kitten naivety, Scott's blank-faced cop, and Timberlake's crazy smirk. In the background; Wallace Shawn (Princess Bride) is weird Liquid Karma inventor "The Baron", Miranda Richardson's eyes float across a sea of surveillance monitors, John Larroquette bumbles around with political lackeys, Christopher Lambert (Highlander) drives a ice cream truck, comedian Jon Lovitz pops up as an irresponsible cop, and Mandy Moore turns up as a bitchy wife.
For all its faults (too big, too unwieldy, too unfocused, too rambling), Southland Tales is agreeably preposterous. There's always something going on, even if it rarely makes sense, and the storyline almost comes together once the reason for Boxer's amnesia is revealed – before leaving you out to sea with a bizarre flying ice cream truck finale and a Darko-style time-tunnel. As a viewing experience, it's infuriating yet oddly compelling, and I was left intrigued enough to scour the 'net for "answers" (with this spoiler-filled Salon article particularly insightful.)
Overall, there's a great film in here somewhere -- but the relative inexperience of Kelly as a filmmaker, his lack of restraint when given $17 million, and an over-inflated ego post-Darko -- results in an undisciplined curiosity piece. It's not the atrocity its box-office non-performance would indicate (it earned a paltry £300k!), but neither is it a misunderstood classic. It's somewhere in-between.
But I'd rather watch an ambitious, complex, brave failure like Southland Tales than an apathetic, predictable, bland smash-hit. Wouldn't you? It's just a shame the film actually holds true to T.S Elliot's "Hollow Men"; ending not with a bang, but a whimper.
Budget: $17 million
PICTURE: 2.35:1 | SOUND: DTS / Dolby Digital 5.1 / SDDS