If there's one benefit to the overwhelmingly negative buzz surrounding Richard Kelly's Southland Tales since the flick's disastrous 2006 Cannes debut, it's that expectations have been dramatically lowered for the Donnie Darko director's sophomore effort, which finally arrives in theaters this week after an extensive re-edit. After all, the movie's trailer (available here) is fairly spectacular. Certainly a filmmaker of Kelly's caliber could carve a decent flick out of the inscrutable three hour-plus behemoth that screened at Cannes, right? Sadly, no.
Southland Tales' plot defies easy explanation, so I'll politely defer to the film's press notes:
"Los Angeles, 2008: The city stands on the brink of social, economic and environmental disaster. Southland Tales is an epic story set over the course of three days that culminate in a massive 4th of July celebration."
Labeled by the director himself as "a comic take on the apocalypse," the story (mostly) centers on three characters: confused police officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) amnesiac action movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, sans the "Rock" moniker) and Santaros' porn star girlfriend Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Surrounding them is an astoundingly bloated ensemble cast that includes Justin Timberlake, Cheri Oteri, John Larroquette, Mandy Moore, Jon Lovitz, Kevin Smith and many, many others.
Southland Tales' bloated ensemble wouldn't necessarily be a problem if Kelly's plot had certain degree of focus, but the story bounces maddeningly from thread to thread, touching upon issues like the War in Iraq, The Patriot Act, quantum physics, religion and urban decay -- not exactly pedestrian topics. The result, not surprisingly, is a bewildering mess. I'm not sure if Robert Altman could have eked coherence out of this hodgepodge. For the most part, Southland Tales feels like the frenzied work of an ADD-addled director whose every creative indulgence apparently went unquestioned. There are indeed a handful of scenes that show promise, but they're quickly abandoned whenever Kelly discovers something else that catches his fancy. It seems that every time Southland Tales appears on the verge of letting the audience in, Kelly shuts us out again, defiant in his quest to keep it entirely impenetrable.
Oh, and did I mention it's a musical, too?
Richard Kelly is clearly a talented guy and I have no doubt that he'll rebound with his next feature, The Box, but he clearly bit off more than he could chew with this sprawling debacle.