Southland Tales (2006): Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly’s Sophomore Jinx

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales” is an overwrought but underwhelming sci-fi political satire that occasionally breaks into song-and-dance.

One of the messiest, most pretentious, and self-indulgent American films to compete for the Palme d’Or at the Festival de Cannes, Kelly’s second effort, a follow-up to the ambitious and intriguing “Donnie Darko,” lends validity to the concept sophomore jinx.

Grade: D+ (* out of *****)

A film in which action star “the Rock” is the lead protagonist, and in which he is asked to act, is already questionable, even if the credits enlist him more reputably as Dwayne (“the Rock”) Johnson. Though easy to take visually, Johnson’s acting, in a double role no less, basically amounts to rolling his eyes and quivering his hands with nervousness. It’s hard to tell whether Kelly the writer is deliberately playing a joke on his actor and/or his audience and/or both.

It’s also hard to tell what the movie is about since the storyline, despite being grounded in the post 9/11 era, lacks coherence, discipline, and resonance. Best way to describe “Southland Tales” is as a 160-minute live-action video game, in which the players and scenes are deliberately but arbitrarily presented. Kelly could have easily changed the sequential order of the scenes and no one would have noticedor care.

Excessive running time is not the chief problem, for even if “Southland Tales” would lose 40 minutes in the editing room, it won’t regain one iota of narrative or cinematic logic; in fact, it might get worse.

That said, the movie is never boring since the screen is always busy with sounds and images. Having missed the press screening, I attended the official gala, during which no a single soul walked out (perhaps out of politeness), though the applause was muted.

I’m hesitant to use the term postmodern since “Southland Tales” is really a senseless pastiche rather than a blend or hybrid of genres. Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence” theory might do better justice in describing this work since Kelly’s film is replete with allusions, references, and motifs to other futuristic works, including Phillip K. Dick, “Blade Runner,” “Brazil,” and “28 Days Later.”

Midway, Kelly includes a scene from Robert Aldrich’s apocalyptic noir, “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), and the fact that the movie is book-ended by holiday celebrations in Downtown L.A. immediately brings to mind Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi “Strange Days,” which also didn’t make narrative sense but at least was exciting visually in its colorful compositions.

As if to prove that he has done his homework, Kelly, a graduate of USC, pays homage to Fellini’s paradigm of “Life as a Circus.” More specifically, he quotes Fellini’s “Satyricon” with a similar parade of freaks, dwarfs, and androgynous characters, primary among them is Wallace Shawn as Baron Von Westphalen (an homage to Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi figures) and midget companion Dr. Katarine Kuntzler (Zelda Rubinstein). When first introduced, the couple is negotiating a deal with Japanese Hideo Takehashi (Sab Shimon) that results in cutting his whole hand rather than one finger!

A psychologist should be able to explain more poignantly why a young director (Kelly is only 31, who has made only two movies, decided to set both stories after the end of the world. The story begins on July 4, 2005, when Abilene, Texas goes through a nuclear attack (Singer Justin Timberlake plays Private Pilot Aiblene).

Cut to 2008 and the Santa Monica-Venice-Hermosa Beach region, where most of the story is set. A fascist government is dominating the country through terror, manipulation, and fear. Almost unrecognizable, Miranda Richardson is cast as Nana Mae Frost, an all-seeing supervisor seated in what looks like a high-tech maximum-security cage, from which she gives orders.

“Southland Tales” is a movie in which anything goes: Global politics, energy crisis which drives nations and people into acts of desperation, dirty bombs, wars like Iraq and occupation of Syria, election campaigns of corrupt representatives, TV shows that declare that the country’s most urgent problem is “the horniness of teens.”

Though he appears, disappears, and reappears at random, “The Rock” plays the lead character, Boxer Santaros, a 20-million-dollar a picture star, whos trying to pitch a screenplay called “The Power.” Suffering from amnesia, Boxer occasionally assumes the identity of his story’s fictional character, Jericho Cane. Occasionally, he’s reminded about his marriage to the bitchy Madeline Frost Santaros (Mandy Moore), daughter of Senator Boby Frost (Holmes Osborne), who’s running for reelection.

But it doesn’t prevent Santaros from having a full-fledge affair with Krysta (TV’s Sarah Michelle Gellar), a former porn star (using the name Kapowski), who’s currently a powerful TV host (spoofing the Oprah Show perhaps) using the name Krysta Now. The meeting of the two women offers some wicked exchanges and nasty fun, but the tension is dissipated at the end, when they are forced to dance together with Santaros as a triangle and as a couple too (a tribute to Bertolucci’s femme-driven tangos)

The motif of the double is used to the fullest by Kelly. Almost every character assumes a second/double identity, and some have twins, such as Roland Taverner/Ronald Taverner (both played by Sean William Scott), the movie’s only appealing character, a Venice beach cop who has lost his twin brother. Not to worry: Through special effects, the twins reunite until they reemerge as a single individual.

Tapping into the post 9/11 zeitgeist of anxiety and paranoia, “Southland Tales” depicts a rigid society in which the Patriotic Act runs supreme and civil rights don’t exist. The sinister Treer Corporation, headed by evil incarnate Baron Von Wesphalen, has devised a new hydroelectric energy source called “the Fluid Karma.” Such terror fosters unrest, which coalesces around a movement known as the “Neo-Marxists,” an aggregate of feisty guerrillas, disenchanted war vets, lowlifes like former porn stars and other poor elements. It’s only a matter of time before the civilian unrest builds up into a counter-revolution and a bloody clash with the power elite.

For cultural diversity, Kelly provides the beautiful Bai Ling, who plays the exotic Serpentine (and moves like one), sexily dressed and wondering around spouting one-sentence prophecies. The whole script consists of ideological slogans, spoken by characters that function as mouthpieces.

Not neglecting the hip quotient, Kelly throws into the mix indie icons Kevin Smith as Simon Theory and actor Lou Taylor Pucci, as Martin Kefauver (an homage to the famous Senator), a rebellious teenager who literally floats in the air on a balloon with a machine gun.

Insecure about his already overstuffed compilation of American movie genres, Kelly also includes two musical sequences (a tribute to Busby Berkeley). In the first musical extravaganza, Justin Timberlake is surrounded by a chorus of blonde chorus girls. The second prolonged number involves the “Star-Spangled Banner” (an anthem that’s used to much better and ironic effect in John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus”).

In one of the few visual highlights, there’s a good spoof of a glitzy ad featuring two SUV preparing for sexual intercourse that should also count as a production number. But like the other sequences, it comes out of nowhere and leads to nowhere in particular.

Even more disappointing than the narrative is the film’s visual look, which is neither realistic nor futuristic. Some scenes borrow from the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” films and TV series. Others are granted a more contemporarily and recognizable look since they are shot around the Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach.

In one of many meaningless and preposterous scenes, a woman holds Santaros at a gunpoint, threatening to kill herself if he won’t relent to her lifelong fantasy to give him a blowjob. In a later scene, Santaros himself points a gun to his temples and threatens to commit suicide. Though “Southland Tales” is not particularly violent, guns are used in an arbitrary way, but we don’t care about the rulers or ruled, the victims or the crime-perpetrators.

Announcing a multi-media project with publishing, music industry, and websites tie-ins, “Southland Tales,” a movie full of quotation marks within quotation marks, is nothing if not ambitious. Copying George Lucas’ organizing principle of the “Star Wars” series, Kelly divides his yarn into Chapters IV, V, and VI, to follow up the current publication of books I, II, and III as graphic novels.