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Southland Tales

Doppelgangers, Porn Stars, and Zeppelins Bring About Half-Baked Apocalypse

About.com Rating 2 Star Rating

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Southland Tales

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson in "Southland Tales."

Samuel Goldwyn Films
You may already have heard a thing or two about Richard Kelly's long-awaited follow-up to the cult hit Donnie Darko (2001). Southland Tales was savaged by critics after its Cannes premiere, and Kelly has since shortened the film by 19 minutes and added special effects shots to the ambitious apocalyptic romp with the odd ensemble cast that includes Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake and Seann William Scott.
In the incarnation I saw, Southland Tales is much better than the complete disaster the Cannes reviews were announcing. The film is a wild ride to the end of the world packed with absurdist characters, technological wonders, stoned terrorists, and science-fiction conspiracies. Set over the days leading up to a final Fourth of July, this cartoonish, satirical, convoluted and America-centric Armageddon is introduced with a quick primer that's meant to bring us up to speed. The film's end-day present is kind of like 2007, only more so: after terrorist attacks in Texas, the Bush Administration launches World War 3 in the Middle-East and clamps down on civil rights at home. Resources are running out, checkpoints are erected at state lines, and dissenting "Neo-Marxists" are rounded up. The nightly news comes with Hustler ads.

In a move borrowed from George Lucas, Kelly picks up the action with chapter IV--the prequels numbered I through III are available in comic book form. The plot concerns BoxerSantaros (Dwayne Johnson), an actor and screenwriter with amnesia, his girlfriend, porn star and talk show host Krysta Now (Sarah MichelleGellar), and Roland Tavener (Seann William Scott), a police officer with a mysterious doppelganger. There are kidnappings, showdowns on the beach, and Wallace Shawn plays an inventor who tongue-kisses Bai Ling and discovers the secret to an alternative energy source that powers his gleaming airships.

Bai Ling in Southland Tales

Samuel Goldwyn Films
After only a single viewing, it's almost impossible to make sense out of Southland Tales' postmodern grab bag of disparate elements: self-fulfilling screenplays, cut-off fingers, Christopher Lambert as a weapons salesman cruising Venice Beach in an ice cream van, quotes from Revelations and Robert Frost, imagery lifted from Alan Moore's Watchmen and the entire catalog of movies set in Los Angeles from Day of the Locust to 1941, home-made roller blades, a rift in space-time near Lake Mead, bizarro slapstick by Amy Poehler and Jon Lovitz, and a Justin Timberlake production number set in an arcade.

"The 4th dimension will collapse on itself, you stupid bitch!"

Southland Tales is overstuffed with ideas, but few of the seem to lead anywhere or connect in a meaningful way. You can see Kelly straining to create, as he did in Donnie Darko, a hermetic cosmology that is simultaneously prophecy and its own fulfillment, but I was left wondering if this kitchen-sink apocalypse had anything urgent to communicate beyond its own self-assured wackiness. The result is fitfully engaging but leaves too much unexplored to appear as anything other than half-baked.

Sure, if you squint hard enough and engage your imagination, you may be able to construct a Southland Tales of the mind that's a lot more coherent than what's on screen, but it's not my job to review the movie that might have been. As it stands, you'll probably leave the theater with a few new catch phrases about pimps, teen horniness, and the New York Times, a couple of belly laughs, and a nagging sense of disappointment.

That doesn't mean Southland Tales won't find its champions, and I wouldn't be surprised if Kelly took another page out of George Lucas's book and kept tinkering with Southland Tales. Instead of a cataclysmic doomsday, I foresee a never-ending series of "improved director's cut ultimate DVD editions," eagerly gobbled up by Internet forums debating the finer points of Fluid Karma and the average whoremonger's proclivity for self-annihilation. From what I've seen, we're not going out with a bang but with a whimper.
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