“The fourth dimension will collapse in upon itself, bitch!”
SOUTHLAND TALES (Richard Kelly, 2007)
posted by Akiva
Since I caught an early screening a couple weeks ago, I’ve been curiously awaiting the opening-week reviews of Richard Kelly’s zeitgeisty magnum opus, because it’s truly something to be reckoned with — one of the worst films of the year, I think, and a truly monumental expression of artistic hubris and tone-deaf liberal outrage. I’ll clarify: Southland Tales is a deliriously miscalculated cavalcade of dumb dystopia, the kind of thing that happens when you use the Book of Revelations and Das Kapital to teach a fratboy how to read. The most distressing result of Kelly’s inflated hero-experiment is that he made me feel like The Rock and Sarah Michelle Gellar have had their time wasted. Really, it’s a waste of The Rock’s time. Because Kelly pretends to have prudent thoughts about the use of celebrity, about how the news cycle from the past few years has been Britney and Iraq, Britney and Iraq, Britney and Iraq, to the point where the two become intertwined, and then does nothing coherent with the provocative idea. Kelly uses The Rock — not to mention the rest of his improbable A-listers — as a pawn, and the gambit eventually comes across as pointless and mean-spirited. But enough about me.
The critics who got behind the film in the wake of its vitriolic reception at Cannes — here’s looking at you, Manohla — mainly admire the sheer chutzpah (Ms. Dargis calls it “reaching beyond the obvious”) of the thing, as if grandiosity was a cure for clumsiness. What they forget is that nearly everything in Southland Tales is miscalculated, from its woeful sense of humor (see the title of this post, or consider the script’s oft-repeated catchphrase: “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide!”) to its stupid political science (the kleptocracy is being fought by a rebel sect called the neo-Marxists, which a voice-over helpfully explains is influenced by “the teachings of German philosopher Karl Marx”) to its childish fixation on big-bang apocalypse (I’m sorry, but Kelly has made only two films, both about the end of the world.)
Thank God for YouTube, because it will save the film’s only worthwhile scene from languishing in obscurity. Justin Timberlake plays a soldier recently returned from Iraq, a question-mark-scarred veteran of the siege at Falluja, and Kelly provides him with a drunken karaoke wonderland set to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.” (You know: “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier!”) The scene is a complete non-sequitur, but Timberlake’s bravado rescues it from complete nonsense and then some. Maybe if Kelly had restricted this overblown project to Timberlake’s recognizable human character, the film would begin to approach the contagious sci-fi passion of his earlier project, the justifiably celebrated Donnie Darko.
This is, of course, the problem with Southland Tales. Somebody told Richard Kelly that he’s a genius, but failed to point out that Donnie Darko became a cult classic for its detailed illustration of teenage anxiety, not for its needlessly elaborate (and mostly incoherent) cosmology. This explains why Donnie Darko is the rare film where the theatrical version far outshines the director’s cut. While Kelly is obsessed with explaining how the world ends, we (and, presumably, the studio) simply loved peeling away at the secrets of his approachable suburban heroes. So Southland Tales is his big “You want the End of The World? I’ll give you the End of The World!” statement, and he ditches Donnie Darko‘s restrained and emotionally pointed scope for a masturbatory universe (complete with three prefatory graphic novels, available for purchase) whose characters and ideas seem completely interchangeable.
I get where Kelly is coming from. I understand the sentiment that this geopolitical moment needs its own interpretive dance climax set on the eve of apocalypse. It’s a stretch, but I also get that our country’s responses to “teen horniness and war” are essentially part of the same continuum of governmental mismanagement. But still, Southland Tales is a waste of resources. Instead of taking the nation’s pulse, it sublimates our patriotic outrage into comic-book squares, and drowns our coherent anger in petty conspiracy theory. Bill O’Reilly would call it “bloviating far-left twaddle”; he wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate.
It’s almost enough to turn me Republican.