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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Southland Tales  (2007)
3 Stars
Directed by Richard Kelly.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Nora Dunn, Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz, Holmes Osborne, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Lou Taylor Pucci, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith, Curtis Armstrong, Wood Harris, Beth Grant, Jill Ritchie, Zelda Rubinstein, Will Sasso, Phil Sternberg, Lisa K. Wyatt, Abbey McBride, Gianna Luchini, Michele Durrett, Joe Campana, Todd Berger, Robert Benz, Aaron Dillar, Jinah Kim, Rebekah Del Rio.
2007 – 144 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, violence, sexual material & some drug content)
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 13, 2007.
Opens Wednesday, November 14, in NYC/LA.
"This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends—not with a whimper, but with a bang."

—Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake),
  "Southland Tales" opening narration

There will be people—plenty of people, in fact—who will rashly claim that "Southland Tales" is an express example of a sophomore slump for writer-director Richard Kelly. Truth be told, the visionary filmmaker had unknowingly set himself up for an eventual fall the moment he released 2001's "Donnie Darko," a massive cult phenomenon and, to many including myself, one of the decade's best and most original motion pictures. There is no competing with near-perfection, especially when a director achieves such a feat on his or her first time at bat. Nevertheless, Kelly has made a valiant attempt to one-up himself with a sprawling, complex mosaic that, scope-wise, almost makes "Donnie Darko" appear to be quaint. The film is, at once, an absurdist comedy, a political satire, an existential tragedy, a brain-melting mystery, a science-fiction take on an alternate reality of the near-future and, in one inspired scene, a musical performed to the tune of The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done."

Has Richard Kelly, indeed, succeeded at outdoing his previous film? No. Not by a long shot. Narratively speaking, it's a mess—a rapturous and unforgettably entertaining mess, but a mess just the same. The juggling of a massive ensemble of characters is uneven at best, as is some truly oddball against-type casting that doesn't always pay off. The dialogue, some of it a take-off of classic poetry—Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled" and T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" are references that come immediately to mind—and nearly all of it written to sound abstruse and philosophical, causes an emotional disconnect between the viewer and the people onscreen. Yet, even with clear inspirations firing from all cylinders—i.e. David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Robert Altman—it can be unequivocally and without even the slightest hint of doubt proclaimed that "Southland Tales" is unlike any other movie that has likely been made.

The time is July 2008. Three years ago, terrorist nuclear explosions destroyed the Texas towns of El Paso and Abilene. World War III is currently being fought. A shortage of oil has put a strain on the economy. The presidential elections are only a few months away. A corporation known as Treer is hoping to replace the need for fuel with remote-controlled transportation. Cyberspace has been overtaken by a Patriot Act extension called USIDent, placing a watchful eye on every person, every place, and all technology, thus putting an end to national privacy. Set over a three-day span in Los Angeles leading up to a 4th of July blowout at Venice Beach, the story semi-focuses on a trio of lost souls.

Movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), reported missing for several days, is found in the desert. Suffering from amnesia and having forgotten his marriage to Madeline (Mandy Moore), daughter of presidential electorate Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), Boxer picks up his affair with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). A porn star hoping to go mainstream with a reality show, an album, and a clothing and perfume line, Krysta has also co-written a screenplay with Boxer depicting the end of the world. Moving in and out of his script's alter-ego Jericho Kane, Boxer attempts to research his character by going on a ride-along with Hermosa Beach police officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott). Unbeknownst to him, Roland is actually twin brother Ronald, posing as his sibling in a plot masterminded by a group of Neo-Marxist anarchists to expose Roland as a racist, soil Boxer's reputation and, in turn, sabotage Senator Frost's hopes for the presidency.

There's more to "Southland Tales" than just that. A whole lot more. It would take a fifty-page thesis to sort out all of the various characters and plot strands vying for attention, and at least a few more viewings to fully understand everything going on in the foreground and background of each scene. It is quite amazing, then, that the film plays as cohesively as it does. Following a disastrous in-competition screening at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, reportedly a rough cut, writer-director Richard Kelly has since taken almost another year and a half to fine-tune the bombastic, admittedly lavish project. Shaving nineteen minutes off its original 163 minutes, adding nearly a hundred new special effects shots, and clarifying story points, Kelly's completed film remains unwieldy and far from commercial. Nonetheless, it is a virtual treasure trove for adventurous moviegoers tired of being force-fed the same old thing, and the silky music score by Moby aids in building a throughway to each of the subplots even when certain main characters disappear for inordinately large chunks of time.

The cast isn't as seamless, though it should be said that this is one of the most eclectic compilation of actors in memory. Dwayne Johnson (2007's "The Game Plan"), dropping his "The Rock" moniker for the first time, is as close as the picture has to a lead as Boxer Santaros. His quirky performance is a bit mannered, but then, so is everyone else's. Sarah Michelle Gellar (2006's "The Return") shows off her comic side as ambitious simpleton Krysta Now, but again seems a little lost within the grand scheme of things. Boxer's and Krysta's love story, if one can call it that, needed to be developed more than it is to make the impact it deserves. Seann William Scott (2007's "Mr. Woodcock") primarily plays it straight in the dual roles of twins Ronald and Roland Taverner, who may or may not hold the key to the impending apocalypse.

More interesting are some of the offbeat supporting roles, with Justin Timberlake (2007's "Alpha Dog"), as Iraq War vet Pilot Abilene; Cheri Oteri (2007's "Shrek the Third"), as butt-kicking Neo-Marxist Zora Carmichaels; Mandy Moore (2007's "License to Wed"), as Boxer's strong-willed wife Madeline; Bai Ling (2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"), as Treer temptress Serpentine, and Amy Poehler (2007's "The Ex"), as well-regarded poet and underground Neo-Marxist Veronica Mung/Dream, coming off best. Others, like Jon Lovitz (2006's "The Benchwarmers"), as racist cop Bart Bookman, and a heavily made-up Wallace Shawn (2005's "Melinda and Melinda"), as Treer head Baron Von Westphalen, are miscast and shrill. In their own odd way, though, they fit within the wacky goings-on surrounding them.

In years to come, "Southland Tales" may come to be regarded as a modern cinematic masterpiece. It's certainly got what it takes to conceivably be considered as such, even with its flaws, and its scarily plausible depiction of an alternate world of the future that could very well become our own sometime down the line speaks louder than other recent political message movies like the obvious "The Kingdom," the shallow "Rendition" and the preachy "Lions for Lambs." Breathless, eye-popping, abstract and infinitely layered, the film has so much to say and so many bases to cover—too much, one could argue—that there is no possible way for Richard Kelly to be able to fit it all into a 144-minute running time.

The ending, wherein all of the puzzle pieces and spare characters arrive at a singular destination somewhere between a mega-zeppelin and a levitating ice cream truck about to be thrust into a fourth dimension, is explosive in more ways than one, even as we wish that we could have connected on a more human level with those we had spent time with. The finished product may be riddled with trouble spots such as this—it wouldn't have hurt if the characters had actually reacted with a bit more authentic passion and dismay at the knowledge that the end of the world is nigh—but at least its occasional failings occur while doing something groundbreaking with the medium. In a world of mediocre, middle-of-the-road, formulaic fare that is like everything else that has come before it, "Southland Tales" stands invigoratingly apart from the crowd. It's ballsy, fascinatingly different and thoroughly commendable.
© 2007 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman