Nineteen months after it stink-bombed the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, got auctioned off by original co-producer Universal Pictures and retreated into distribution purgatory, the sophomore feature by Donnie Darko writer-director Richard Kelly has finally re-emerged, shorn of 20 minutes (from its nearly three-hour original running time) and sporting some spruced-up special effects. The occasion has prompted the film’s small but vocal chorus of champions (including my esteemed Village Voice Media colleague J. Hoberman) to once again espouse their praise for Kelly’s satirical doomsday phantasmagoria, set in and around Venice Beach over the 2008 Fourth of July weekend. Three years earlier, the film tells us in a re-edited (i.e., more coherent) prologue, a nuclear attack laid waste to the town of Abilene, Texas, resulting in the reinstatement of the draft, the further expansion of the Patriot Act, and the restriction of travel across state lines. Meanwhile, back in the near future, an amnesiac action-movie star named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock) returns from a mysterious disappearance only to find himself the unwitting linchpin in a plot by “neo-Marxist rebels” to undermine the vice-presidential campaign of a Texas Republican senator (Darko dad Holmes Osborne), whose daughter (Mandy Moore) happens to be Santaros’ wife — if only Santaros could remember that. Also along for the ride are some wacky scientists (played by the likes of Wallace Shawn and Zelda Rubinstein) putting the finishing touches on a renewable hydroelectric energy source (called Fluid Karma) that doubles as a hallucinogenic drug (much to the delight of the movie’s narrator, an acerbic Iraq vet played by a scar-faced Justin Timberlake), a perplexed Hermosa Beach cop (Seann William Scott) who can’t figure out why his mirrored reflection is experiencing a tape delay, and a host of Oscar nominees (Miranda Richardson), direct-to-video has-beens (Christopher Lambert) and Saturday Night Live alumni (Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri) all vying for attention in Kelly’s hopelessly self-conscious stab at a hipster ensemble worthy of David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino. Kelly’s partisans acknowledge that Southland Tales is “messy,” but insist that its young (31) director is trying to “say a lot” about politics and the culture. Having seen the film again, in its re-cut version, I remain unconvinced. As I wrote from Cannes, Kelly seems to think that to merely mention Fallujah or global warming — or to name a bank after Karl Rove — is the same as actually having an opinion about them, and his all-you-can-eat buffet of cinematic in-references (to say nothing of his Bartlett’s-style quoting of Eliot, Yeats and the Book of Revelation) operates on pretty much the same superficial level. The movie’s frequent invocations of Kiss Me Deadly and Mulholland Drive have been much discussed, but in addition, Southland Tales pilfers large chunks of its plot and visual style from Alex Cox’s Repo Man, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and Shane Carruth’s Sundance-winning Primer, and unlike the makers of those films, Kelly hasn’t digested his influences and made them his own — he’s more like the slacker college kid who’s just enough of an intellectual poseur to bluff his way to an A. That said, Southland Tales isn’t entirely without its pleasures, chiefly The Rock, whose Santaros evolves from blissful rube to raging paranoiac, and Sarah Michelle Gellar, cast as the porn-star/talk-show host Krysta Now. Together, they may hold the key to mankind’s salvation. But who, dare I ask, will save them from Southland Tales? (Selected theaters)
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