Southland Tales
Director: Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko)
Writer: Richard Kelly
Producers: Sean McKittrick, Kendall Morgan, Matthew Rhodes, Bo Hyde
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, John Larroquette, Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri, Mandy Moore
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 160 min
read my spoiler disclaimer

reviewed by Andrew James
     Here is a perfect example of a film trying to do too much for its own good. Disaster movies tend to polarize audiences anyway; and while Southland Tales might not be considered a disaster movie, it certainly is a disaster. If David Lynch directed a Kurt Vonnegut novel, then tried to spin it into a comedy with the most ridiculous cast he could find, Southland Tales is what he would've ended up with... except Lynch's film might've ended up more coherent.

      I'm not even going to try for a decent plot synopsis as there are far too many strands in this "story" to fit in a paragraph. But basically, as the apocalypse approaches we find that a movie star (Dwayne Johnson) might be the key to either stopping it or perpetuating it. A cop (Seann William Scott) is somehow involved with this potential mayhem, along with a police-state government, a liberal terrorist network and an ex-porn star turned talk show host. There are various kidnappings, a guy in an ice-cream truck, random drug deals and musical dance numbers that are completely out of place. Throw in about 500 B-movie, character actors in various roles and you've got twice that many plot threads. Did I mention disaster?

      The problem with the movie is not the lack of story ideas. It's the sheer number of them and the melancholy way they're edited together. It's as if Richard Kelly had a very vivid dream on Monday, then another unrelated dream on Tuesday, then another each day of the week. At the end of the week he decided to try and mix them all into one story and cram it into a feature film. This obviously wouldn't work - hence, Southland Tales. There are quite a number of great ideas here that could really be potentially great fodder for any number of feature films: political struggle, renewable energy, war, famine, riots, abortion and teen horniness (yes, I said "teen horniness"). Unfortunately they don't all work very well in one narrative.

      Besides the problem with cohesion, is the comedic element. There are a few scenes within the movie that are legitimately funny; and intentionally so. However, they seem to be mixed in with the most serious of elements. It's a rickety, roller-coaster ride of insanity that I could never tell if I was supposed to be taking it seriously. Therein lies the problem. One minute the film seems to be an intentionally bad, satirical, message film, the next it ponders some serious questions and social dilemmas. Followed closely by nearly slapstick humor and odd one-liners.

      Let's talk about the casting. One of the thoughts I had when viewing the trailer for Southland Tales is that the strange cast of B list actors will probably work in the film's favor. I was wrong. The chemistry by the three main stars is non-existant and the fact that every face in the film is recognizable in one way or another is really more distracting than fun. In fact Janeane Garofalo can be spotted in literally only about one second of the film*. WTF? And seriously, who told the casting director to hire every female member of the 90s Saturday Night Live cast? * = apparently her part was cut from the movie after the Cannes screening. Still, why did I see her then and why is she in the credits?

      As poorly as the story is put together, there are bits of enjoyment to be had here. The opening ten minutes or so is really fascinating. Watching a country collapse in on itself after the detonation of a nuclear device in Texas (which we get to see in a very realistic, albeit impossible, way) complete with news headlines and political debate was extremely well put together. I was reminded of the propaganda pieces shown in Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. A nice touch with nice style.

      The entire package is also very slick and packaged pretty nicely. Sometimes the cinematography gets a little weird and surreal just for the sake of being weird and surreal, but for the most part, the film borders on stunning visually. Add to this a fairly decent soundtrack and you've got the shell of what might make for an interesting film.

      Lastly, Johnson's performance is probably the highlight of the picture (which doesn't say much). I'm not a "The Rock" hater. I appreciated his work quite a bit as the only decent part of Get Shorty's sequel, Be Cool. And his performance in Southland Tales delivers some of that same, fun intensity. It is a bit campy at times, but for the most part his individual scenes work pretty well and it's always entertaining when he's on screen.

      Richard Kelly has truly fallen down the rabbit hole with this one and it shows. No I'm not unintelligent. I actually followed the "plot" fairly well - or at least I think I did by the end. That doesn't mean the story is cohesive or even deep or meaningful. It really doesn't seem to have any direction and its not sure what it wants to be; a sci0fi epic, a comedy, a satire, a soap opera or an action picture. This is a film that is far too ambitious for its own good, Southland Tales is an hour too long, 50 cast members too big and 30 story threads too many. When the thesis for your film revolves around lyrics from the Jane's Addiction anthem, "Three Days," you're likely to have a mess on your hands. And Richard Kelly does.

Click "play" to see the trailer:

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