Donnie Darko is arguably the best first feature this decade, a fusion of teen angst, metaphysics and late-80s junk culture. Thrillingly trippy and oddly moving even as it uncannily anticipates our post-9/11 paradigm shift, Donnie Darko deserves its cult status and signaled great things to come from writer/director Richard Kelly. My lingering affection for Kelly's debut was enough to shrug off Cannes audiences, critics and an indifferent audience in the hope that his second film would prove to be a misunderstood gem. And perhaps the failure of Southland Tales - and fail it does, miserably and interminably - is evidence that Kelly shares his audience's faith in himself. Southland Tales is the grating, self-satisfied byproduct of a second-time director attempting to live up to his premature "visionary" status and failing completely. I'm tempted to compare Kelly to Michael Cimino, except Heaven's Gate is at least a visually beautiful film, whereas Southland Tales is an ugly, obnoxious mess.
Meant as a Breakfast of Champions for the 21st century, Southland Tales has more in common with Alan Rudolph's disastrous adaptation than the book or any of Vonnegut's work (or the work of Andy Warhol or Thomas Pynchon, to name a few of the artists that Kelly has cited as influences). Kelly apes Vonnegut's self-reflexive narrative structure but cannot match the author's wit or humanity. The unwieldly story of Southland Tales, set in an alternate 2008 where WWIII is in full swing, is a portrait of the apocalypse as seen through the eyes of amnesiac action star Boxer Santoros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), his porn star girlfriend Krista Now (Sarah Michele Gellar) and cop Roland Taverner and his neo-Marxist brother Ronald (both Sean William Scott). Their intertwining fates are set against a backdrop of an alternate LA populated by a cast of revolutionaries, celebrities, and partygoers tangled up in a plot that encompasses homeland security, the energy crisis, race relations and teen horniness in an epic venting of one budding auteur's spleen. It's possible that the collision of social commentary and disposable culture could make for a fascinating portrait of the zeitgeist (it already has - it's called Until the End of the World and it's great), but Kelly restlessly moves from one knowingly crappy setpice to the next before his ideas are able to take any discernible shape. Just as each location is defined by its sense of clutter, the scenes pile on top of each other in an increasingly abrasive manner; it's clear the approach is intentional, and this hyperbolic approach may be a smart choice for contemporary satire. The problem is Kelly's failure to connect his clutter in a cinematically meaningful way - lacking a coherent aesthetic sensibility, lumbering from one pointless scene to the next, stopping for the occasional inexplicable musical number Southland Tales is supposedly about chaos and meaninglessness but only succeeds in contributing to the endless stream of noise it supposedly skewers.
The biggest disappointment of Southland Tales resides in its most promising conceit, a cast populated by B-to-D-list celebrities ranging from Wallace Shawn to Zelda Rubenstein to Christopher Lambert. There's a wealth of satirical material to be found in my generation's curious veneration of kitsch, and I'd hoped Kelly's cast list indicated a deeper explanation of the connection between pop culture and regression touched upon in Donnie Darko's Smurfs debate. But the presence of sitcom and B-movie actors playing their roles straight not only condescends to the cast (Jon Lovitz, playing a racist cop here, was previously used in a serious role in Todd Solondz's Happiness to greater and more subversive effect) but only succeeds in reaffirming the hipster detachment Kelly is supposedly criticizing. He might as well have taken the joke further, into the realm of pure trash absurdism - picture a Mexican standoff between Jaleel White, Dom DeLuise and Elvira - but since there is no joke beyond the fact of the B-list ensemble, Southland Tales deteriorates into a series of derisive snickers of recognition while leaving open the question of what exactly Bai Ling is doing in the film besides smoking and posing (I guess the answer's in the question). Kelly reduces his entire film to the same "everything is crap" mentality, which begs the question of why we need this demonstrated for two-and-a-half mind-numbing hours; he's not the first artist to demonstrate contempt for his audience and medium, but he is the first to give the world Justin Timberlake quoting (and misquoting) T.S. Eliot and Revelations with a straight face.
Southland Tales does contain a few strong ideas - the home-movie depiction of a nuclear attack that opens the movie, Santoros' description of his self-penned screenplay The Power, Krista's hit single "Teen Horniness is Not a Crime" - that had me holding out hope until the very end that Kelly was going somewhere with all of this. Then the movie made a blatant attempt to tie itself to Mulholland Drive, reverted back to some leftover ideas from Donnie Darko, resolved its central conflict with a frigging rocket launcher and cut to black after the most laughably pretentious final line I can remember. If Kelly rebounds with his next film, an adaptation of Richard Matheson's The Box, than Southland Tales may be remembered as a blip in an otherwise interesting filmography. But the geniunely disconcerting comments by Kelly fans on his MySpace page ("Southland Tales is so amazing in every single way") concern me - is it possible that Southland Tales will ride the coattails of Donnie Darko to default cult status? Or, much more disturbingly, is there actually something in this mess that is speaking to the kids (further evidence that we increasingly need to be bludgeoned into submission in order to feel anything)? Whatever the case may be, when the emotional apex of a film consists of Mr. Dick-in-a-Box pouring beer on his head, something has gone horribly wrong.