After earning critical praise and cult-hit status for his clever and hauntingly poignant depiction of human time travel in Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly delivers Southland Tales, a pointlessly convoluted and relentlessly pretentious fever dream that plays like the retarded offspring of Slaughterhouse Five and the original (and insufferable) Casino Royale. Throw in an unhealthy dollop of Terry Gilliam and Terry Southern, the random appearance of midgets (er, little people), and you've got the recipe for cinematic disaster.
Trimmed by 20 minutes (if you can imagine) after its implosion at the Cannes Film Festival, this byzantine pastiche of post-modern affectation wants to be the big-screen equivalent of a Philip K. Dick novel but ends up an incoherent and completely unfunny social satire about American TV, political rhetoric, postwar paranoia and quasi-religious fervor. Oh, and there's time travel.
Not surprisingly, the plot nearly defies synopsis: It's 2008, three years after Abilene, Texas was destroyed in a nuclear attack perpetrated by terrorists (the film's opening and best five minutes). War has engulfed the Middle East, oil prices are through the roof, the draft is reinstated, Republicans are running the joint and the Patriot Act has handed all Internet control to a corporation called USIdent. Soldiers sit in heavily armed crow's nests, watching over public beaches and retail districts. A freaky German scientist and multinational CEO (Wallace Shawn) has solved the energy crisis with an invention that harnesses the motion of the ocean while introducing a new psychedelic drug to the masses. And it's an election year (Eliot/Frost vs. Clinton/Lieberman).
Enter Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who heads a sprawling cast (oddly filled with Saturday Night Live alumni at their unfunniest) as an amnesiac Schwarzenegger-like action film star named Boxer Santaros. Married to the daughter of the Republican vice-presidential candidate, he mysteriously goes missing and ends up in the arms of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a humorless, dim-witted but socially conscious porn queen who has dreams of becoming a visionary TV icon but gets caught with a violent, underground neo-Marxist organization.
If that sounds like a train wreck of a movie, we're just getting started. Sean Michael Williams plays an LAPD cop whose twin brother may actually be a future version of himself, while Justin Timberlake narrates as the scar-faced survivor of Williams' friendly-fire attack in Fallujah. In one of the film's few inspired moments, Timberlake lip-syncs to the Killer's "All These Things That I've Done" in a Busby Berkeley-like music vid set inside a skeetball arcade.
Kelly claims Southland Tales is his attempt to create "pop art." The problem is that the best pop art is discovered accidentally, not purposely created. Yes, his film has a lot of interesting ideas, but they're so artificially crammed together they end up signifying a whole lot of nothing. It's an elaborate shell without filling. To paraphrase Gertude Stein: "There just ain't no there there."
Maybe the film's mirroring its own message — that the world's falling to pieces and no one realizes it — but if an audience steps from the theater without the simplest grasp of what they've seen, the film fails. No number of graphic novels (concurrently released with the film) is going to change that. Ultimately, Southland Tales is a film made for Internet message boards, not moviegoers.
Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, who loved the film after seeing it at Cannes, said, "Kelly's movie may not be entirely coherent, but that's because there's so much it wants to say." Well, schizophrenics have a lot to say too, but who wants to listen to their delusions for two and a half hours?
Opens Friday, Nov. 16 at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.