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Southland Tales

Futuristic Fables of the Deconstruction

On some level, itís hard not to admire Richard Kelly, whose fierce determination to follow his muse has helped produce two of the most startlingly original films in recent memory. His debut, Donnie Darko, was a complicated tale of teenage romance, adolescent insecurities and time travel, featuring a sinister, sociopathic rabbit and set against the backdrop of a colorfully dysfunctional suburb. Itís a challenging puzzle of a film, rewarding those who pay careful attention, while trusting in the intelligence of its audience to fit the pieces together.

Kellyís Southland Tales demands more of viewers; it asks them to decipher the incomprehensible. In many ways, it defies description, but let me try. The film is painful. Incoherent. Agonizingly long. Needlessly vulgar. In short, it is a spectacular failure, a perfect storm of bad ideas.

Whatís it about? Beats me. Set in Los Angeles on the eve of the apocalypse, it is a frenetic collage of stories involving a Hollywood playboy (Dwayne Johnson), a ditzy porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a brainwashed cop (Seann William Scott), and a small army of revolutionaries led by past and present stars of Saturday Night Live. T.S. Eliot and Janeís Addiction (strange bedfellows, indeed) are referenced liberally. One character compulsively guzzles Cheese Doodles. Justin Timberlake, as a drug-addicted veteran of the war in Iraq turned doomsday prophet, mercifully shoots her in the spine.

Things happen. Neo-Marxist freedom fighters, led by Cheri Oteri, try to incite a race riot, presumably in hopes that chaos will cripple the government. Timberlake performs a hit song by The Killers. The concept of time travel is revisited, which should come as little surprise Ė Southland Tales was conceived as a sort-of sequel to Donnie Darko. And, in perhaps the most welcome development, Wallace Shawn and John Larroquette, who can breathe life into the most turgid of movies, turn up as behind-the-scenes power brokers with matching appetites for destruction.

There is nothing dull about Southland Tales. It is a noisy, surreal mess of fragmented thoughts intended, by Kellyís admission, as a love letter to the MTV generation. It wants to be so many things -- a scathing indictment of Hollywood culture, an incisive post-9/11 political satire, an Orwellian fantasy about the end of creation, an absurdist comedy. Kelly had so much to say that he is simultaneously releasing Southland Tales as a graphic novel in three parts, and if his prose is more lucid than his filmmaking, Iíd be happy to read them.

There are those who will defend Southland Tales for its eccentricities and boundless energy, just as there are those who attempt to divine artistic meaning from a blank canvas, or who will gaze mesmerized at the flaming wreckage of a car crash. Fair enough. If American cinema has grown so homogenized that we need directors like Kelly to administer a little shock treatment every now and then, so be it. His vision is audacious at every turn and fearless to a fault; this is independent filmmaking at its most uncompromising.

Yet originality is not an end in itself, and Kellyís execution here is appallingly shoddy. For a movie six years in the making, Southland Tales seems about as thought-out as a Rorschach blotter. It is sloppy and self-indulgent, an inglorious disaster epic in scale.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars