Some bad movies are bad in such fascinating ways, you may find yourself tempted to recommend them to your friends over slick pieces of Oscar bait. Southland Tales is such a movie. Writer-director Richard Kelly’s $15-million cinematic head trip has enough material for two or three good movies, and four or five bad ones. Unfortunately, the crap wins out. But a few scenes suggest there’s true inspiration behind the craziness.
Kelly is known for the cult film Donnie Darko (2001), a dark fantasy about time travel and alternate realities that plays like an ironic homage to 1980s teen movies. Southland Tales takes the vices and virtues of that film and magnifies them. Its setting is an alternate-universe America in which nuclear attacks wiped out two Texas cities in 2005. Now the U.S. is at war with every member of the “Axis of Evil,” the president has reinstated the draft, and “urban pacification units” roam the streets of L.A. (the “Southland” of the title). A Patriot-Act-on-steroids program called USIdent gives the feds power to watch us anywhere, anytime, under the stern supervision of Miranda Richardson — who, dressed like Joan Collins in her prime, plays the wife of the Republican vice-presidential hopeful in the 2008 election. The only resistance comes from a group of “Neo-Marxists” composed primarily of washed-up “Saturday Night Live” cast members. Oddly enough, the government considers them a threat.
But wait! We haven’t even gotten to the actual plot. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a right-wing movie star married to dragon lady Richardson’s daughter (Mandy Moore). He’s emerged from a mysterious trek in the desert with amnesia and a burning desire to write apocalyptic screenplays. So he shacks up with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star who wants to run her own media empire. Together they pen a movie that sounds like something Michael Bay might concoct on an acid trip — in other words, a lot like Southland Tales. For research purposes, they turn to an L.A. cop (Seann William Scott) who’s actually an agent of the Neo-Marxists. Did I mention that a mincing mad scientist (Wallace Shawn) is trying to remedy the oil crisis by building a reactor to produce something called “fluid karma” in the ocean off Santa Monica? Or that the film is narrated by Justin Timberlake, as a maimed Iraq vet who sits on that same coastline wielding a very big gun?
This is a mere sampling of the subplots and characters featured in Southland Tales — which should give you an idea of how coherent the film is. Kelly seems to have tried to jam a complete season of a surreal TV series into 144 minutes. That’s too bad, because he understands the world we live in, with its volatile mix of news, entertainment and paranoia. Snippets of fake cable news knit the film together, overflowing with useless bits of information and sneering, jingoistic headlines. (One reads: “Give Up Already: Pathetic Wannabe Terrorists Get Schooled in Destruction.”) And the film’s utterly superfluous musical sequences are dreamy, if you like that sort of thing. (Timberlake lip-synching The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” is a YouTube moment.)
But not one of the film’s characters feels like a real human being. Kelly tosses in too many self-consciously weird, David-Lynch-esque touches — from a vamping Bai Ling to the creepy mini-medium from Poltergeist. And he throws away the political relevance of his plot by lighting out into pure science-fiction territory, where people say things like, “The fourth dimension is collapsing upon itself, you stupid bitch!”
Admittedly, hearing The Rock deliver lines like that is, for some, worth the price of admission. Southland Tales is already a spoof of itself, but it also seems to aspire to the genuine visionary power of Brazil or Children of Men. Maybe Kelly needs to team up with a screenwriter — not Krysta Now — who can tell him when enough is enough.