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“This is the way the world ends,” says a disembodied voice at the start of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Three hours later, Kelly’s film ends with the apocalypse all right — or something like that, anyway — but the truly forbidding omen is that the unbearably smug, staggeringly self-indulgent, supremely terrible Southland Tales exists, and that the 59th Cannes Film Festival chose to premiere it.
If Kelly’s name rings a bell, it’s because five years ago, a little movie he wrote and directed called Donnie Darko came and went quietly from theaters, only to later build up a rabid cult-following through home video and midnight revival screenings. It too was an end-time tale of sorts, about a brooding teenager (played by a pre-Brokeback Jake Gyllenhaal) who travels through time and engages in existential chitchat with a demonic 6-foot-tall rabbit, and as people discovered the film, they didn’t just like it — they thought it was visionary and daring and that Kelly might just be the great white hope of American indie cinema. And from the looks of things, Kelly has bought wholesale into his own hype: Southland Tales is the kind of movie a talented young director makes when he is surrounded by sycophants (including his own producers) who daren’t tell him that anything he wants to do is less than brilliant.
Set in and around Venice Beach over the 2008 Fourth of July weekend — three years after an unspecified nuclear attack has laid waste to Abilene, Texas — the film tells of a vast and sinister conspiracy that ensnares, among many others, an amnesiac movie star (The Rock, here billed as Dwayne Johnson), a former porn actress (Sarah Michelle Gellar) turned talk-show host, a Republican senator (Darko dad Holmes Osborne) with his sights on the White House, and the band of “neo-Marxist” rebels intent on blackmailing him. Never mind the specifics of who’s conspiring against whom and why. Like most of the actors, whose expressions of utter bafflement become the defining motif of the movie, I doubt Kelly could tell you himself.
Rather, the plot of this sprawling tapestry of neo-futuristic SoCal life (which comes complete with three about-to-be-published graphic-novel “prequels”) is little more than an excuse for Kelly to float a series of half-cocked musings about terrorism, global warming, the erosion of civil liberties and other newsworthy issues du jour. The result is an astonishing exercise in juvenilia, in which the 31-year-old filmmaker, who has self-effacingly characterized himself in interviews as an overgrown frat boy, attempts to wow us with the kind of knee-jerk nihilism and supposed insights into the course of geopolitical events that one might glean from the Cliffs Notes version of Das Kapital, or from New York Times headlines skimmed en route to the sports page.
Actually, to say that Kelly “muses” about anything is giving him too much credit. Southland Tales is a movie that believes that to merely mention the words “Iraq War,” “Patriot Act” and “alternative fuel” — or to name a bank after Karl Rove — is to make a bold political statement, and it’s already clear that, despite overwhelmingly negative reviews, there are some who feel that Kelly has accomplished exactly that. Just as there are some who will hail the film’s widespread miscasting (including Jon Lovitz as a sadistic cop) as acts of Tarantinoesque “reinvention,” take the Bartlett’s-style quoting of Eliot, Frost and Yeats as a mark of Kelly’s intellect, and chalk up Southland Tales’ bottomless capacity for sophomoric sexual puns (one key storyline revolves around the pending passage of a “Proposition 69”) as some sort of irreverent hipster humor. What exactly even Kelly partisans will make of the film’s atrocious Justin Timberlake musical number, though, is beyond my capacity to guess.
If it sounds like I’m being harsh on Southland Tales, that’s because I am, but not unduly so. No sooner had the film’s Cannes press screening come to a close than rumors were already afoot that co-producer Universal Pictures was quietly looking for another distributor to take the film off its hands, at least in North America. And that’s one bit of festival gossip I have little trouble believing. For Southland Tales in its current form (did I mention the three-hour running time?) is essentially unreleasable, nor do I see how any amount of re-cutting could significantly improve things (other than making them shorter).
Of course, this isn’t the first time a Cannes premiere has sharply divided audiences or that a promising director has struck out in his second at bat, but what’s especially disconcerting about Southland Tales is its inclusion in the official Cannes competition and what that says about the complex relationship between Hollywood and the world’s largest film festival. Last month, when the Cannes lineup was unveiled, Kelly’s film seemed like one of the feathers in the cap of Thierry Frémaux, the festival artistic director who has done much in his five-year tenure to change the perception of Cannes as a venerable haven for obscure works by the reigning art-house old guard. But now that it has screened, Southland Tales seems less a coup than a collective act of desperation — on behalf of a studio hoping against hope to wrangle some positive buzz for a $25 million ego trip, and on behalf of a festival eager to seem young and relevant at any cost. Even more troubling is that there are intelligent critics and festival programmers and other industry professionals who storm out in a huff from lyrical and intimate international films (like this year’s Hamaca Paraguaya and Climates) that strike them as self-absorbed and/or pretentious, but who willingly sat through Southland Tales in its entirety, for the simple reason that it hails from America, no matter that it is the most navel-gazing film in Cannes by a mile. If this is the way things are going, it may be that Kelly has been more prophetic of the apocalypse than even he imagines.
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