Poor The Rock. With his outsized charisma, cartoonish build and air of sincerity I’m still convinced he has the potential to make great movies. The problem is he doesn’t seem to hook up with any good directors. THE RUNDOWN is still his best movie and it’s a fun time but, come on, it’s no PREDATOR, or even COMMANDO. I believe we, as a society, can offer The Rock more than THE RUNDOWN. So I was excited when I found out the Rock would be one of the stars of this weird new movie from the director of DONNIE DARKO. “Should at least be interesting,” I thought, not bothering to knock on wood.
Trouble is I had writer/director Richard Kelly pegged all wrong. I liked DONNIE DARKO well enough, thought it was pretty original and enjoyable. Saw it once on video and once as the director’s cut at the Seattle Internation Film Festival, which is when I learned that some youths worship this guy. They traveled across the country dressed in DARKO-themed costumes to nervously stammer to him that he changed their lives. That’s weird, I thought.
Then he wrote DOMINO, one of my most hated movies of the last several years. But I blamed Tony Scott. I figured there could’ve been a good script in there, Tony Scott just ax murdered it to unrecognizable bits with his Guiness Book of World Records All Time Worst Editing Ever In the History of Cinema. But after seeing SOUTHLAND TALES I’m not so sure Kelly is clean on that one. In fact I bet he specified alot of that shit in the script.
SOUTHLAND TALES takes place in Los Angeles, in the near future, after a nuclear attack on Texas. It involves intrigue between an amnesiac action star, a senator, a porn star/talk show hostess, left wing radicals, a Homeland Security type Big Brother department of the US government, twin brother racist cops, the inventor of an alternative fuel, some dwarves, and a weapons dealer in an ice cream truck played by Christopher Lambert. The plot also hits on time travel, dimensional travel, the human soul, psychedelic drugs, kidnapping, blackmail, staged murders, slam poetry, and a zepellin piloted by Kevin Smith wearing old man makeup but talking exactly like he did in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. The cast also includes Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Nora Dunn, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, Curtis “Booger” Armstrong, Zelda Rubinstein, Janeane Garafolo in one shot of a crowd scene, and the guy who apparently played Seagal on MAD TV. Also your mom is probaly in there somewhere.
Obviously that sounds like a big crazy mess, but whenever I heard about it I just laughed and looked forward to seeing it, naively assuming that Richard Kelly was a smart guy with a clear idea of how to wrangle all of this madness into a story. Nope, not at all. Not only is he not trying to do that, I don’t think it ever occurred to him to consider doing that.
As far as I can tell this is not a story. It’s a long, convoluted explanation of the background details of some other story that you will never see and not really feel like you are missing out on after you’ve watched this. If there was a real story in there it would be an entirely different movie, and this would be the ambitious DVD extra that you would be excited for but then turn off after a couple minutes when you realize it’s duller than you imagined.
Most of the actors in the movie do a decent job. I would single out Gellar as the best for her character, she gives the closest thing to a funny performance in what the extras repeatedly claim is a comedy. There are actually a few parts that intentionally made me laugh, but overall it does not feel like it’s supposed to be a comedy, except when The Rock cartoonishly twiddles his fingers and somebody eats a bunch of Cheetohs.
There are ideas sprinkled here and there that I like. He’s trying to hit on that media saturation/corporatism theme that Paul Verhoeven did so well in ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS, and he doesn’t do it nearly as well but I do like that sort of thing. So I liked seeing the Hustler logo on the side of a tank and the car ad where two CGI Humvees fuck doggystyle. But that’s about it. The vast majority of the movie doesn’t click at all. You don’t give a shit about any character or what they are doing. You’re not sure where the movie is going, and when it suddenly ends it turns out the reason you didn’t know was because it wasn’t going much of anywhere. (I thought it quoted”this is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper” about 25 times so that must’ve been on purpose. You see, it’s supposed to be not entertaining. In order to be a whimper. It’s deep. But a reader kindly reminded me that the movie intentionally misquotes it as “not with a whimper, but with a bang.” So I guess you could say it mis-misquotes it.)
The characters, who by the way have some of the worst names since Desolation Williams (Vaughn Smallhouse, Martin Kefauver, Dr. Soberin Exx, Dion Element, Fortunio Balducci, etc.), mostly talk in slow, “dream-like” nonsense about how they wrote a screenplay about babies not having bowel movements or a dream they had last night as Moby’s keyboard drones try to imply some sort of deepness. Imagine some of the dipshits from WAKING LIFE trying to talk to you like The Architect in THE MATRIX RELOADED. There are words coming out of their mouths but that doesn’t mean they’re talking.
Kelly has made a movie exclusively for those DARKO fans in the bunny costumes who will take every weeeeeeeird line of dialogue and quote from the book of Revelations and study it for years. You gotta do the research. One post on the IMDb actually criticized “The ones who can’t be bothered to read the graphic novels so they can actually understand the film and unlock all of it’s secrets.”
Yep, it turns out this 2 1/2 hour (cut down from 3 after it flopped at Cannes) movie is only chapters 4-6. Maybe that’s why I didn’t know it was a comedy – I didn’t study hard enough to know what was funny. You have to stay up all night doing your homework and then come in and try to stay awake through this god damn lecture. The teacher is Justin Timberlake, who narrates constantly throughout, explaining all the concepts that would come out in the story if at some point Richard Kelly (for now on R. Kelly) decided to include one.
I’m not gonna get into one of those “You just don’t get it / Oh yeah, ’cause there’s nothing to get, the Emperor has no pants” type arguments. If some people on the IMDb message boards have figured out ways to enjoy this horse shit then good for them. We don’t want to waste our precious resources such as electricity and John Lovitz. I’ve seen people who love SOUTHLAND TALES on the internet but I doubt I’ll ever encounter one in the wild. If you’re gonna be one of those people you will have to be more interested in studying symbolism and puzzles than in watching movies. Do all the paperwork and apparently the hidden entertainment value will reveal itself to you. Well that’s fine but to me the trek to the Holy Mountain should not be a prerequisite to enjoying a movie.
And speaking of which, let me just say that I can take weird. On the weirdness scale HOLY MOUNTAIN makes SOUTHLAND look like SWEET HOME ALABAMA. “Your sacrifice will complete my Sanctuary of 1,000 Testacles.” But it’s still captivating, it ends up having a structure, it brings you along on a journey with these characters and has a conclusion. It also makes stronger satirical points and is funnier than SOUTHLAND TALES. So it can be done, at least by a mad Chilean mime/Tarot expert. Not as easily by a frat boy armed only with some poetry books, a Bible, and a collection of David Lynch DVDs.
After watching the making of featurette on the DVD I really realized how much they failed. They keep saying “it’s about the end of the world – and it’s a comedy!” like some Amish guy who’s never heard of DR. STRANGELOVE or various comedies of the 1980s is gonna be impressed by that. The only shocking part is that they think they have made a comedy. Then they say it’s an action movie, though there’s no action in the movie. They say it’s a musical – there is one musical scene for Justin Timberlake. I’m no fan of his singing or dancing but I have to wonder why they would cast him in a movie and then have him do a musical number where he doesn’t dance or sing, but merely lip synchs somebody else’s song. Don’t you get it? They’re going out with a whimper!
And they say that it addresses many important issues of the modern age, which is the biggest failure as far as I’m concerned. Hearing Kelly list all the things it’s supposed to be about is a pretty good way to understand why it ends up not being about anything. But just look at the basic premise: left wing militants are messing with a politically connected celebrity to try to change the outcome of an election and pass a proposition that will add reforms to a PATRIOT ACT type bill. Of course I get the part about encroaching on civil liberties, but this is not the world we live in. When was the last time you heard of left wing radicals trying to do anything? Other than those kids who burn down buildings every once in a while to save the environment there is no such thing. There is no Weather Underground of the 2000s, no SLA, no Black Panther Party. I’m writing this on the fifth anniversary of this godforsaken war and what does the real life counterpart to the “Neo-Marxist Movement” (as they’re called in the movie) have planned? Some more marches. Writing some letters to the editor. I bet there will be an online petition. Some anarachists will put up a bunch of fliers. Maybe even graffiti!
The world of the movie just doesn’t ring true. Nobody, even crazy stupid people like this, have the balls to fight that way. You can’t picture any of this happening. If this was good satire it wouldn’t be using this setup that Kelly knows from movies about the ’60s and ’70s. It would follow the actual world we live in where people are either too apathetic to care or too overwhelmed to know what to do about it. Good satire has to come out of the reality of the world you’re looking at and not just out of the way stories are expected to go. You know what, the photography and effects may be classier in this movie, but IDIOCRACY is a way more entertaining movie that is also way more accurate as a satire about the world we live in right now. Unlike SOUTHLAND TALES it’s constantly funny, and in fact the thing dampening the laughs is that the jokes paint such an accurate portrait of our culture that you get kind of sad watching it.
But if it wasn’t spot-on satire it could still be fun to watch. Here’s the best analogy I’ve come up with to explain this movie: George Lucas was a huge nerd who spent years compiling notes about the world he used in the first STAR WARS. But then he went and made STAR WARS. He didn’t make a slide show about all those notes. If you watch STAR WARS you might love it and then go and read up on everything about yodas and chewbaccas and get wrapped up in that whole world outside the movies. With SOUTHLAND TALES you’re asked to do all of that without the movie to inspire it.
I learned more about the world of the movie from the set decorator talking about one of the sets than from watching the movie. I think it’s great to put all that thought into the sets, but then you gotta put something in front of them. That’s what Kelly forgot.
Sorry R. Kelly but until further notice you are persona non grata. As a buddy of mine said after watching SOUTHLAND TALES, “He just went from being the director of DONNIE DARKO to being the writer of DOMINO.” If you have a good debut but then follow it up with two of the worst movies of the decade then I’m afraid the math doesn’t work out in your favor. Richard Kelly, I sentence you to life imprisonment in Movie Alcatraz. If you figure out a way to swim off I’ll look the other way. But I’m not holding my breath.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.