Southland Tales

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Release Date: November 14, 2007
Runtime: 145 minutes
Rating: R
Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: Dwayne Johnson; Sarah Michelle Gellar; Seann William Scott; Justin Timberlake; Nora Dunn; John Larroquette; Bai Ling; Mandy Moore; Jon Lovitz; Cheri Oteri…many others!

Whoa, is this one boondoggle of a movie! Sporting a cast and a scope that would make Cecil B. DeMille salivate, Richard Kelly’s follow up to his cult classic “Donnie Darko” is one of those not-too-distant futuristic commentaries, but it is so all over the place you almost need an org chart.

Dwayne Johnson has the central role of Boxer Santaros who, at the outset of the film, has just awakened in the Nevada desert with amnesia while the rest of the world is coping with the aftermath of an A-bomb type explosion, which has just ignited World War 3. So, already you have lots going on. It just gets more complicated. Sarah Michelle Gellar (the best thing in the movie) plays porn star and reality TV hopeful, Krysta Now, who has some tenuous connection with Boxer and a band of anarchists (including SNL alums Nora Dunn and Cheri Oteri) intent on overthrowing the upcoming presidential election…or something like that. Thrown into the mix is Seann William Scott (looking hot as ever!) as a Los Angeles police officer who is searching for his twin brother amongst the insanity…or is it really just a double that has been created by the anarchists? Who else? Oh yes…Justin Timberlake narrates the whole thing via voice-over as an Iraq vet trying to get back on his feet. There’s also Wallace Shawn, Mandy Moore, Zelda Rubinstein (!), Curtis Armstrong, Christopher Lambert, Miranda Richardson, John Larroquette, among other kitchen sink actors making appearances. It really is a “who’s who” of talent here.

First, the good. Kelly is definitely ballsy. It takes some big cajones to attempt a project on this scale and you have to admire his chutzpah. Some of his visuals are great, and you can absolutely tell that he is a skilled technician in terms of camera placement and general mise-en-scene. I would love to see what he would do with music videos, for instance. However, (and now the bad) it seems as though he was going for a sort-of futuristic “Pulp Fiction” but without Tarantino’s command of the medium. His direction of his actors is another liability. There really is no consistent tone among the performances, sometimes even within the same scene. Some of the actors seem to be playing their parts straight, some seem to be channeling a dark comedy slant, some seem to be going for downright camp. The effect is that the actors don’t seem to be on the same page and I never truly understood how I was supposed to be feeling about any of them. Unfortunately, that problem falls squarely on the director whose job it is to create a certain tone that carries throughout the movie, whereby the audience is clued in as to how to respond to his story. And that’s another thing…the narrative is all over the map. There are so many characters, so many plots, so many moving pieces that there really is no way to follow what’s going on. By the end of the TWO AND A HALF HOUR (!) running time, you get a general gist of things, but by that point, everything is so jumbled that you aren’t really sure if what you thought was the plot was the plot or what it was all supposed to mean. By the time the credits rolled, it was more of a feeling of “Thank God that’s over” than “Wow, that was really cool!”

However, as far as the actors go, it’s not really their fault, as I mentioned. I have enjoyed all of them in prior and subsequent projects. Dwayne Johnson is, no question, a born leading man and has the looks and charisma to carry a (good) movie on his own. He would be great as, for example, a James Bond-ish character or even in a rom-com. He is so likeable that the man could easily be a superstar. Gellar looks terrific here, even though she’s under what appears to be pounds of makeup. Scott is his sexy, scruffy self and has the most action-y role of the movie, which suits him well. I don’t quite understand why he’s not more of a movie star as, like Johnson, he has that certain charisma that movie stars require to keep audiences coming back to watch them.

This movie had a famously disastrous screening at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a chore to sit through and to understand. It’s frustrating, and one can only hope that Kelly’s learned a bit from his “Southland Tales” experience. It’s admirable to undertake ambitious and unconventional projects, but there has to be some consistent thematic and narrative thread pulling the movie along. Otherwise, it just unravels and you end up getting booed out of Cannes.

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