Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pimps don't commit suicide.

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.


Paul C. said...

Rarely have I felt so lonely in a theatre than when I saw this with an audience. I hated pretty much every moment of this, but the crowd I saw it with was eating it up. I actually heard I guy telling his friend afterwards, "I see a lot of movies, but this is seriously one of the best movies I've ever seen."

My biggest problem with it is that it tries so hard in every respect that we can see how much Kelly is straining for effect. It's bad enough that he's deliberately trying to make a cult hit- the best cult movies tend feel like they've escaped the asylum rather than been willfully created. But it's even worse when he's trying to be profound. He throws in all of these shallow literary allusions that don't really go anywhere and expects us to respond to the fact that he's trying. And audiences who are weaned on puddle-deep entertainments somehow buy into it.

Also, I wanted to throw something at the screen when Jon Lovitz said "flow, my tears." Seriously, who thought that was a good idea?

peoplhi said...

i find there are 5 types of reactions people get from this movie.

1. they don't understand the movie on any level. confused from beginning to end so they hate the movie.

2. they don't understand the movie on any level. confused from beginning to end so they love the movie as it is stupid but awesome.

3. they get what is going on from scene to scene but dislike the movie for feeling uncomfortable and rushed through.

4. they get what is going on from scene to scene and then realize that the movie is talking about the second coming of christ. then they like the movie because of it and decides to rewatch it to catch the other subtle hints because it is fun to do so.

5. they get what is going on from scene to scene and then realize that the movie is talking about the second coming of christ. then they hate the movie anyways because no movie should be so confusing on the first watch through.

i am in group 4. you are in group 3.

seriously, it's about the second coming and the last judgment. the rock is the false profit. stiffler is jesus. thus the line "pimps don't commit suicide" makes more sense. it is also so many people felt safe on the blimp with the rock when they thought the world was going to end, that was until the scene when the rock swore to god that he'll shoot him self freaked out so many people.

and stiffler is jesus because he was resurrected. in this case, it was through a time loop. but it kinda counts. but everyone thought it was the rock who came back.

interesting thing is that i'm neither christian nor am i knowledgeable in Christianity. i just caught on that it was biblical when the face of jesus appeared in blood on the rock's back in a scene and then suddenly everything clicked.

comprar puertas metalicas said...

It will not truly have success, I feel like this. said...

Thanks so much for this post, really helpful material.

online pharmacy said...

"flow, my tears." is worst movie quote ever, anyway this film is a cult for everysingle without critic sense.

Unknown said...

I have only read and seen reviews of this movie, and I have not seen it. Likely I won't. I loved Donnie Darko, but this looks like nonsense and pretense.

I recently watched the ending of a movie called "The Witches of Oz," which was nearly as nonsensical as this and almost as pretentious. It was like watching flashes out of someone's nightmares and one had to piece together what was going on to understand anything. As you have said, I hope this isn't a trend in film making that is trying to get a toe-hold in our society.