I'm about as a big fan of Donnie Darko you can find. I believe it's about as perfect as a movie can get. I would have bet anything that writer/director Richard Kelly was going to be the next great filmmaker. After watching Southland Tales, I'm not so sure anymore. I still think that he has great potential, but Tales is about as huge a sophomore slump you could name. He's really going to have to knock it out of the park with his third film to get my confidence back.
There was so much fanfare, so many compliments thrown his way after Donnie Darko, that I think it went to his head. He was so confidant that he could do no wrong, that he used every single idea he had in one movie, whether they were good or bad. There are a few good ideas in Tales, but they're completely obscured by the overwhelming number of bad ones. There are far too many plots and characters in this film, it seems that as soon as any one idea starts to develop we're quickly off to another one. We're never given a chance to care.
The film starts with an interesting premise. In 2006 America was hit by another terrorist attack, this time in the form of a nuclear weapon dropped in Texas. The Government seizes upon the opportunity to turn America into a military state, with constant surveillance of all citizens. Really, not that far fetched of an idea. I liked the idea of an alternate present, but Kelly tries to tell the story from every conceivable angle. If he'd kept this grand idea to a smaller scale, focusing on a few characters, the film might have been a lot better.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays Boxer Santaros an action movie star researching a role as a cop, for a movie he's hoping to produce with his porn-star girlfriend Krysta Now, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. Seann William Scott is the cop he gets to ride along with, but he's not really a cop, he's an amnesiac taking the place of his twin brother who's being held for unknown reasons by a group of tattoo artists with plans to overthrow the Government. Justin Timberlake plays a Iraq War veteran, who now sits over Venice Beach with a sniper rifle protecting a new power source that sits off shore; he's also the narrator of the film, who somehow knows everything. There are more characters, the tattoo artist/terrorists, the inventor of the new power source, those who work for him, a Government employee who works for a watchdog group, her bosses, a Presidential hopeful and quite a few more. Too many to list, and definitely way too many to care about.
Every single one of them is a recognizable actor, many of them former Saturday Night Live players. I guess Kelly hired a lot of comedians, because he intended Southland Tales to be a comedy. At least he says so in the making-of, but I honestly don't remember laughing once. The only thing that I found funny was the ridiculousness of the scenarios. One moment there's a serious diatribe against the Government, the next a musical-dream sequence. The plot is so convoluted that it's nearly impossible to tell where it's going or what's just happened. There's no neatly tied up explanation at the ending either, if anything it makes it more confusing. What reason could Boxer's wife and mistress possibly have to dance together, I'm not sure, and I don't think Kelly has an explanation either, other than to throw us further down the rabbit's hole.
The film is well made, great photography, good special effects, the way-out-there costume and set design, make it feel like a whole other world, and great choices in music. The acting seems to be intentionally over-the-top, adding to the unnatural feeling of the entire film. It's nearly impossible to feel compassion for any single character in this film, when none of them convince you that they care about themselves. The whole movie feels like it was designed to keep the audience an outside observer, which is an odd feeling. Movies always try to draw you in, even if they don't always succeed.
I think that Kelly was going for a grand artistic expression, but he doesn't quite have the chops to yet pull it off. He should have waited to get a few more films under his belt before swinging for the fences. Southland Tales is a grand failure, that some may come to embrace as a cult-film, because of it's pure ambition and weirdness. I may give it another chance somewhere down the road, maybe gain a new perspective, but I don't think my opinion will change much. - Grade: D