Review by Jack Foley
WHEN it first appeared at Cannes in May 2006 Southland Tales, the keenly anticipated second feature from Donnie Darko visionary Richard Kelly, was universally derided. Critics couldn’t believe how this apocalyptic tale could have emerged as such a flabby, incoherent mess.
Almost 18 months later, the film has returned in a leaner and supposedly more coherent form – but if this is the best that Kelly can muster from a second attempt, one only has to wonder just how bad it was before.
Southland Tales is still a flabby, incoherent mess that’s only made remotely watchable by its own absurdity.
It’s 2008 and America is recovering from the effects of a nuclear strike in Texas. Missing Hollywood action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) suddenly re-emerges from the desert with amnesia to shack up with a porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) with political ambitions.
As the authorities attempt to make sense of Boxer’s condition and to actually pin down his location, a different chain of events are set into play involving Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), a Hermosa Beach police officer, and his twin brother (also Scott), who may hold the key to a vast conspiracy.
Watching over them all is a mystery narrator, Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), whose own story seems linked to everything, including the impending apocalypse.
In truth, the synopsis above only tells half the story as Kelly’s tale is designed to reflect everything from America’s involvement in Iraq, to global warming, to religion versus consumerism and the growth of corporations, to civil liberties and teen horniness.
But it’s delivered in such a needlessly complex and utterly precocious fashion that you really won’t care about any of it, or whether his central characters live or die in the end.
There are moments of brilliance and the odd burst of humour but they’re all too fleeting and given the interminable running length that’s still well in excess of two hours (as opposed to the original’s three), audiences have every right to expect a bigger return for their time investment.
Performance-wise, almost everyone looks perpetually confused or lost and very few get the chance to shine. Johnson manages to muster a little charisma and Scott hints at some dramatic depth, but Gellar and Timberlake are poor and even surprise supporting turns from the likes of Christopher Lambert and Jon Lovitz fail to inspire much enthusiasm.
And quite why Kelly felt the need to include an extended pop promo midway through that features Timberlake lip-syncing to a classic track from The Killers never comes close to being explained.
Given its history and curiosity value Southland Tales could well become a cult classic that provokes frenzied debate among media students attempting to decipher what it all means. But in truth, it’s a pointless exercise in self-indulgence masquerading as a message/event movie.
And only two questions really need answering: what the hell was Kelly thinking and was Donnie Darko a fluke?
Running time: 2hrs 25mins
UK DVD Release date: March 31, 2008