Thursday, November 22, 2007

Southland Tales

I had a friend in college - well, he's still my friend, but he was also my friend in college - who had the Most Convoluted Idea for a Movie Ever. Even now, I can recall bits and pieces of the premise. An epic adventure about two characters who run away from their homes and drive halfway across the country on a search for some legendary underground drug dealer, encountering all manner of inexplicable goings-on and inscrutable characters along the way. It was, of course, completely unfilmable, a jumble of concepts, inside jokes and metaphysical horseshit that meshed into a coherent story only inside the fevered imagination of a 20-year-old pothead.

How I wish Richard Kelly had the good taste to keep Southland Tales to himself, for use exclusively as stoned late-night conversation fodder! To him, I'm sure this schizophrenic camp fantasy all makes sense. Perhaps its looping, ponderous meta-meta-meta-meta-narrative, based on a needlessly complex dystopian timeline, even has something significant to say about our present American reality to Kelly. To me, it felt like having a stranger take a dump in my brain. These ingredients may have once been nutrients, but they have no business rattling around inside my cerebellum.

Where to begin? I don't mean this review...I mean, writer/director Richard Kelly (who previously made the far-better Donnie Darko) obviously had no idea where to begin Southland Tales. So he opens the film with what feels like an eternity of dry, boring exposition. Justin Timberlake narrates - in a disinterested monotone voice-over, mind you - the future of America, in brief. But, you know, not actually all that brief.

I mean it. Nothing happens for a long time in this movie. We literally get an image of a computer desktop with little windows popping up showing us brief clips from a variety of fictional future events, from a nuclear bomb in Texas to the return of Republican power in the Congress to the massive, permanent extension of invasive government surveillance programs. Kelly knows as well as anyone that an audience will lose interest in this kind of elaborate backstory after a few minutes. This is the cinematic equivalent of the first 100 pages of a Michael Crichton novel, the part where he has to prove he knows how to do research before the dinosaurs come in. There's really no excuse for a professional screenwriter to begin a movie this way.

And it's not as if hearing all this backstory makes the action of the film any clearer or easier to follow. After the set-up finally ends (finally!) and we're introduced to some actual characters, it's still impossible to get any kind of handle on what's happening. Rather than moving from Point A to Point B, Kelly gives us scene after endless, clunky, disconnected scene, proceeding nowhere, crammed to bursting with reams of baroque, inessential details about this imaginary world. But none of these scenes are clever or interesting, and there's certainly nothing that moves the movie forward, the logical progression of events being apparently anathema in the Southland of mid-2008. Southland Tales is so slow, I'd swear the film itself was unspooling at less than 24 frames a second.

Still, despite my own bewildered confusion, I shall do my best to give you some notion of the horrors that await you on your journey to the Center of Richard Kelly's Mind-Grapes.

Famous action movie star Boxer Santaros (The Rock) returns from the desert to Los Angeles with total amnesia, having completed some sort of strange mission but knowing nothing about who he is or where he has been. Somehow (I'm not sure how), he hooks up with ambitious porn queen Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar Prinze). Together, they have written a screenplay called "The Power" that (we're told) accurately foretells the end of the world.

I've never been a huge fan of The Rock as an actor, but Southland Tales is clearly his weakest performance in any film I've seen. He can't seem to decide if the film's meant to be a comedy, so he plays some scenes really broad and wacky and other equally ludicrous scenes in total deadpan. He also has this mannerism of twiddling his fingers (I think it's supposed to indicate nervousness and anxiety?) that gets really overused. It's kind of cute (if a little zany) the first time he uses it, but after the 10th or 12th, you want to smack some sense into the guy. (That's not funny if you do it throughout an entire 2.5 hour film, jackass!)

Santaros apparently doesn't realize that he's really the husband of Madeline Frost (Mandy Moore), daughter of the powerful Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Senator Robert Frost, by the way, is keen on quoting the famous poet of the same name, particularly the "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood" line that's probably the only Robert Frost quote 99% of Americans know. This imagery, of the two roads and one being untraveled, comes back in excruciatingly on-the-nose, obvious fashion late in the film. It feels more like self-congratulation than anything else, a filmmaker warning you 20 times about what he's going to do and then demanding respect after he finally gets around to doing it.

Okay, so, in order to prepare for his role in "The Power," Santaros goes on a ride-along with a cop, Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott). Taverner, and his twin brother Ronald, have connections to the underground radical Neo-Marxists, who seek to bring down the company that runs all the government's surveillance, US Ident.

These stories are intertwined with many, many others. We follow a cop played by Jon Lovitz who has hooked up with another one of the rebels, played by Cheri Oteri. Wallace Shawn portrays a brilliant scientist who may have invented a perpetual motion machine capable of cleanly providing the world with energy. Timberlake's narrator even appears during the film, dealing a mysterious futuristic drug that's based on the same technology as Shawn's energy machine. (I think he's actually dead, though...Discuss...) Amy Poehler plays another radical with a really stupid plan to embarrass and discredit Taverner. Christopher Lambert appears in the film driving an ice cream truck around but otherwise not really doing much. There's a wacky musical number, a bunch of crap about the space-time continuum, a really slack dance sequence and, of course, several midgets. Because it's just not a surreal indie film without a midget.

Most of this garbage is just odd for the sake of oddity. Southland Tales occasionally gets weird or silly enough to elicit a giggle. Like, any time Jon Lovitz is called upon to say something severe or tough, or the surprise first appearance by Curtis Armstrong (better known to the world as "Booger" from Revenge of the Nerds) or the CG car sex scene. There's definitely an attempt by Kelly to play off his Donnie Darko success by concocting another apocalyptic sci-fi comedy loaded with Jesus symbolism and also an attempt to replicate some of the style of David Lynch.

In addition to the aforementioned midgets, we get lots of random shots of fires, mysterious backlit foreign-accented conspirators with strange haircuts, portentous non sequitur dialogue and Rebekah Del Rio performing a traditionally English song in Spanish. (You'll recall, she sung Roy Orbison's "Crying" in Spanish in Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Here, she sings the American National Anthem in Spanish.) Some scenes, particularly all the sequences focused on Wallace Shawn and his team of scientific weirdos, feel almost like a parody of Lynch's style, but I'm not sure this is intentional.

For the most part, Kelly seems to be taking this material seriously, which is of course the problem. He's clearly a creative and even funny guy, but his skills as a political satirist and social commentator leave much to be desired. Southland Tales clearly seeks to make some kind of critique, both of our politics and our media. The main on-screen drama is constantly being interrupted in favor of simulated "media" - newscasts commenting on the main action, snippets of broadcasts from background radios and TV sets, the aforementioned and highly intrusive computer readouts introducing us to various facets of future-America. But it doesn't add up to anything. What's Kelly's take on media? That it's a tool for government propaganda? That's it's full of meaningless drivel with no connection to reality? That it numbs the populace into a state of disconnected apathy? The film seems to say all of these things and none of them, and it certainly doesn't present even these basic kinds of observations convincingly or with anything that could be considered a real perspective.

Despite the obvious time and care spent crafting every nuance of his fictional universe (there's even a series of comic books setting up the story of Southland Tales in greater detail, in case 2.5 hours of blather isn't enough for you), there really isn't much of interest going on, in the margins or otherwise. This is a world that is, in many ways, too similar to ours to work as effective metaphor or as an intriguing setting for an ensemble dramedy. I guess the chat show that Krysta hosts from the beach is supposed to comment on the vapidity of shows like "The View," and the government's fear-mongering over nuclear attacks from Syria mirror our own leaders' obsessive push for war with Iraq and Iran, but it's so similar to our present reality, the points don't really get driven home. We're treated to many, many shots of US Ident's surveillance technology, but we don't really see anyone use them for anything. The system just looks like banks of monitors covering every wall. They have no meaning to us aside from set design, and yet opposition to their invasive control drives the entire film. What are they being used for? What hold do they have on those being watched, and the watchers?

Kelly's so busy worldbuilding to bother giving his story some actual stakes or momentum. As a result, he's made a flat, ceaselessly dull disaster, a movie that's, in its present state, thoroughly unwatchable. I'm not sure how I managed to sit through all 140 minutes.


drummer510 said...

Sounds like booty. So I saw No Country For Old Men, and I thought it was good, but not great; I kinda felt it was Fargo on speed. Definitely the one of the darker if not the darkest films by the Coen Bros. But to me, it was very similar to Fargo, just the crazy guy is much-much-much more fucked up.

Both films take place in small somewhat isolated and desolate parts of the country-Fargo in the cold tundra of N. Dakota and NCFOM in the dry deserts of West Texas. Both plots involve a illegal deal going terribly wrong. Greed is a main theme in both films. I don't know, I wish the Coen brothers explored different vistas, other than more blood and gore.

It was good, don't get me wrong. It was amazingly shot, the dialog was fantastic, and the constant state of fearful anticipation throughout the movie just validates the Coen Bro's ability to manipulate a viewers state of mind.

Yet I was expecting a little more depth. I feel Fargo and even Big Lebowski had more levels than NCFOM. I like the characters more in the other films as well; I don't think I really connected with
any character in NCFOM.

On it's own NCFOM is a very good thriller/action movie, but by looking at the track record of the Coen Bros, it's hard not to compare.

patrick said...

Dwayne Johnson and J.Timberlake are surprisingly talented actors; but i'm still trying to figure out what Southland Tales was about... maybe it's really obvious, i.e. life in Los Angeles is blurred, cluttered, flashy and not always meaningful.