[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot. Writer Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and is a Senior Vice President overseeing publicity and marketing at Magnolia Pictures.]
Like an angry hormonal teenager armed with a copy of Philip K. Dick‘s “Now Wait for Last Year” and a $100 lifetime subscription to dailykos.com, wannabe enfant terrible Richard Kelly has emerged from his post-“Donnie Darko” silence with the sprawling, ungainly “Southland Tales.” (After previously emerging in Cannes 2006 and withdrawing in the face of withering criticism to cut his film again.) Since I am, admittedly, an easy target for fiction – especially speculative fiction – in which ambition far outstrips execution, this overlong near-future madcap dystopia, populated by a motley assortment of stars past and present, should have been a slam-dunk for me. But while “Southland” seems intent on staking claim for itself as this generation’s “Blade Runner” or “Brazil,” it stumbles on its way to greatness (far, far away from it, actually), instead playing like a terribly conceived single-theme-episode of “Saturday Night Live” co-hosted by Sarah Michelle Gellar and The Rock. Special musical guest: Moby.
“Southland Tales”‘ supporters confuse sloppiness for sprawling, labyrinthine narrative. A filmmaker slipping a bit on the finer points of storytelling elegance in the face of expansive material is generally acceptable, but given that the slighter “Donnie Darko” (which sailed by on nervous energy and the belief–often valid–that a little slow motion covered with a pop song will win the day) also raised fears that Kelly wasn’t quite able to manage his constituent parts, I’m even less inclined to declare “Southland” any kind of planned auto-critique via disaster.
“Big” art is often compared these days to Thomas Pynchon, as if the famous recluse’s novels are only really remarkable because they’re long, an analysis which forgets that his shorter works, “The Crying of Lot 49” and “Vineland,” engage in similar narrative hi-jinks to their gargantuan brethren, on a more economical scale. Awareness that one can bend economy to his or her will when necessary should be a precondition for artists’ longer flights of fancy. As “Southland” wears on, and grows increasingly, dizzyingly (and meaninglessly) convoluted, it’s unclear what’s really at stake in its hysterical narrative. It calls to mind Spielberg’s “1941,” but with less humor, and less talent steering the proceedings.
Unlike Pynchon, Kelly’s unable to conjure up that simple “wow” factor of a new idea or unexpected collision of elements–watching the various plots of Pynchon’s “Against the Day” unpredictably rub up against each other offers the sense of a massive intelligence at work. Kelly’s scenarios are tired, his politics simpleminded (can we please move past Red vs. Blue? Any thoughtful analyst should realize by now the essential meaninglessness of this lazy media narrative). That everyone in the film generally looks like an ass–the preening Wallace Shawn, various “SNL”-ers done up like Suicide Girls waging an incomprehensible counter-rebellion, an amnesiac Dwayne Johnson sporting the most irritating gestural affectation in recent cinema memory (nonstop finger twiddling)–could be read as a leveling factor, but if this is meant to be the case, “Southland”‘s better left to the proctologists.
Like Dick’s “Now Wait for Last Year,” the political superstructure of “Southland Tales” boils down to a very simple question of personal responsibility and guilt. A nice idea, but yet another ill-considered gesture in a sea of thoughtlessness. It’s intriguing that the unspoken event shared by Seann William Scott and Justin Timberlake during the Iraq War was so monumental that some kind of supernatural reconciliation via space-time rifts need occur; yet its interest is nullified when it’s slapped on the film’s end like a cap to stem an unruly gush of nonsense.
It’s tempting to say–and we’ll surely hear–that there are just far too many ideas in “Southland Tales” for one movie, the unspoken implication being that any of its strands could serve as the basis for its own film. This is woefully incorrect. Nothing here is worth a film of its own, except perhaps its final revelation. If Kelly’s intent was to craft a work that functions entirely as meta-commentary, then the joke’s certainly on me. Somehow, I don’t think many viewers will be left amused.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and is a Senior Vice President overseeing publicity and marketing at Magnolia Pictures.]