A Review by Noah Antwiler
2007 was a dreadful year for movies. I tried making a top ten list of the best films of the year and couldn't even name ten I'd want to watch a second time. I had to pad it out with the DVD re-releases of Robocop and Blade Runner because I couldn't in good conscience put Grindhouse or Live Free or Die Hard on any "best-of" list. The summer season was a crushing disappointment with Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers, and got downright criminally bad with Perfect Stranger (Exhibit D in my case for Halle Berry returning her Best Actress Oscar) and Lindsay Lohan's I Know Who Killed Me. But believe it or not, there was a movie worse than Halloween, Hitman and Uwe Boll's latest exploitation of Canadian tax loopholes: Bloodrayne 2: Deliverance, and it prominently features a four-foot toilet, a flying ice cream truck, and two Stifflers.
Southland Tales may not even count as a 2007 film because director Richard Kelly was forced to spend over a year re-editing and re-shooting it following a catastrophic opening at the Cannes Film Festival where it was utterly savaged by critics. It's sad and also somewhat terrifying to think that the '07 release was the cleaned-up, sensible version; the original cut was about twenty minutes longer! The bad news is that the movie's still two hours too long.
Kelly, famous for the insufferable and vastly-overrated cult favorite Donnie Darko has confirmed fans' fears that the success of his first effort was a fluke: fears that began when his director's cut of Darko turned out to be noticeably inferior to the original. Southland Tales is what happens when you give him far too much money and total creative control. It's a total narrative nightmare by design, as Kelly seems to fancy himself the Jackson Pollock of script-writing, throwing thousands of ideas against the wall just to see what sticks. I walked out of the theater feeling like I'd just watched a sci-fi thriller where the scenes were written in the same random style as the gags on Family Guy. I'm certain I saw a movie where a lot of things happened, but I have no idea what those things were.
I know what he's going for with movies like Donnie Darko. I really do. He wants to create dreamlike films that eschew a traditional narrative structure in favor of challenging viewers with imagery and atmosphere, much like David Lynch has been doing for decades. I was never a fan of this method of filmmaking, but I can certainly appreciate when it's done well, such as Lynch's masterful INLAND EMPIRE. Kelly has no such technical expertise and showcases little but a clumsy, rambling script that's rather depressingly derivative of his own work.
Describing what the movie is about is a total waste of time. I'll tell you generally what happens, which is also a waste of time, but at least this way the review will have some substance. I'm not sure the movie is really about anything other than Richard Kelly trying to demonstrate how clever and abstract he can be. It begins in the classic tradition of Star Wars with Chapter 4 (chapters 1-3 soon to be available in comic book form) and a lengthy opening narration by Justin Timberlake, explaining that the movie takes place in the not-too-distant future where the world is embroiled in World War 3 following a series of nuclear attacks in Texas. Timberlake plays a soldier named Abilene who got accidentally fragged by one of his own men, and because of the wretched scar on his face and drug addiction is no longer bringing sexy back. He now spends his time manning a sentry gun on the California coastline reading narration for crappy movies.
His post overlooks a huge ocean-based power plant built in response to the U.S.'s crippling energy crisis, designed by Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, a.k.a. Vizzini from The Princess Bride), a gnomish-looking man who dresses like Liberace but has also seemingly invented perpetual motion. He calls the process Liquid Karma, a remote energy source that harnesses the ocean's waves to power every car in America. This issue is quickly confused out of all ability to reason when it's revealed that Timerlake is addicted to Liquid Karma and injects it into himself regularly. The confusion begins. Which is it, a power source or a narcotic? It's a power source and a narcotic!
There's a memorable scene where a hallucinating Abilene has a lengthy dream sequence where Timberlake lip-syncs to The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" while dancers wiggle on the skee-ball machines. It's very reminiscent of the freak-out sequence of The Big Lebowski, only without a teeth-gratingly annoying song that repeats the phrase "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier" eight hundred times.
Anyway, the world has become a rather boring Orwellian dystopia where the right to privacy no longer exists. The Internet has been locked down and controlled by a government agency called USIdent, ripped right from the pages of Terry Gilliam's Brazil where the employees wear transparent plastic clothing for absolutely no reason other than to be allegorical. The department is run by the First Lady who dress like a villain from the old Flash Gordon serials with a giant black flared collar you could hang-glide with. Kelly's trying to be both satirical and horrific with his portrayal of the government's disregard for personal privacy, masking it behind sci-fi alternate history trappings, but it's all tedious and ineffective. Not only has this kind of satire been done many, many times before, but he doesn't even satirize them that well. News flash: the current administration is a pack of warmongering, officious dirtbags who spend most of their time trampling all over individual liberties. Raise your hand if you're shocked. And wow, the presidential candidates are "Eliot/Frost," because the narrator paraphrases T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost constantly! It's called subtlety, Richard, look into it.
From there, the movie proceeds to introduce us to a cast of thousands, each character with a name that sounds more made-up than the last. Dwayne "The Artist Formerly Known as The Rock" Johnson stars as Boxer Santaros, a conservative actor with marriage ties to a popular vice presidential candidate. A group of Neo-Marxists, in an effort to discredit the dominant Republican party, hire a Stiffler (Seann William Scott) to impersonate his twin policeman brother Stiffler to take Boxer on a police ride-along, and then set him up to look like a racist in a staged double-homicide. Have I lost you already?
It gets better. The staged murder goes unexpectedly awry when an actual psycho cop appears (played by a platinum blond Jon Lovitz) and shoots the actors for real. This movie contains four Saturday Night Live castoffs, including Cheri Oteri, Janeane Garofalo, and Amy Poehler. In fact, MadTV's Will Sasso plays a murderous double-agent named Fortunio (yeah, right). There must have been a four-for-one loser comedian special at the actor store.
What the Marxists don't know is that Boxer has his own problems. A little while ago he suddenly drove off into the desert, fell into a dimensional rift and returned with amnesia, anxiety, and quite a bit of dementia. He then moved in with former porn-starlet and Britney Spears simulacrum Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and instead of trying to piece his memories back together, decided to co-write a screenplay with her in which he plays a cop named Jericho Kane who discovers that the "rotation of the earth is slowing down at a rate of point zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero six miles per hour each day," which will eventually spell the end for all mankind.
What Boxer doesn't know is that his screenplay is somehow right on the money, he has a wife back home, Buffy is secretly working with the Marxist cast of SNL, and there's an insane woman working at USIdent who has grown obsessed with a copy of Boxer's screenplay that she pirated online. She shovels an obscene amount of Cheetos into her mouth constantly and has gone insane from monitoring toilet stall security cameras, believing herself to be a character in the movie. She calls Boxer (as Jericho) and reads the script to him in order to lead him to the truth behind the apocalypse.
It all has to do with a temporal rift that opened in the desert, which was somehow caused by Vizzini illegally experimenting on soldiers in Iraq. Dimensional rifts are bad news in any Richard Kelly movie, and man, does he like to use them as a plot device or what? This Earth is doomed, however, because unlike Donnie Darko there's no giant psychic bunny from the future to guide The Rock. Vizzini, despite causing the imminent destruction of the world is rather cavalier about it and decides to hold a gala on his flagship, opening the door for Rocky to say the line of the year: "Everybody move to the back of the Mega-Zeppelin." It makes me sad, because I know I'll never be able to use that line in polite conversation.
Meanwhile, the twin Stiffler Two escapes from his bonds and the two Stifflers struggle to reunite with one another, but they're hindered by an ass-kicking Cheri Oteri, who captures Stiffler One. Stiffler Two gets re-captured by Connor MacLeod, who drives an ice cream truck full of automatic weapons and a shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile launcher. Wow, suddenly Highlander 2 isn't Christopher Lambert's most undignified movie!
What the Stifflers don't know is that Stiffler One also fell into the dimensional rift, and when you do that, the rift creates a clone of you 69 minutes into the past. If the Stifflers ever share the same physical space, they merge and form a Mega-Stiffler that will devour all life on the planet! Kevin Smith, appearing in this movie as a legless war veteran heavy with age prosthetics, explains that the government was getting no results throwing monkeys into the rift so they took the next most obvious step (and I swear to God this is true): they started throwing actors in. Who better to explore the fourth dimension than The Rock? He is the People's Champion, after all.
Somehow the Rock Clone got killed, but the Stifflers escaped, and if they ever meet what will really happen is "the fourth dimension will collapse upon itself, you stupid bitch!" (That line nearly ousted the mega-zeppelin one as my favorite!) It's sort of like what happens to temporal clones who touch in Timecop, only way more catastrophic!
And then the movie starts getting crazy. Oh yeah. It wasn't crazy until now: the Rock's Jesus tattoo starts to bleed; Buffy starts to have a three-way ballroom dance; two SUVs do it doggy-style; John Larroquette gets tasered in the nards, and a hippie fires a Stinger at a blimp from a flying ice cream truck. Why? I don't even think Richard Kelly knows, but I'm sure he'll tell you to buy the trade paperback comics and the director's cut on DVD.
Southland Tales is not only the worst movie of 2007, but one of the worst of all-time. It probably won't take any Razzies or become an Internet meme, but will quietly take its place alongside other Cannes disasters like The Brown Bunny and Heaven's Gate as one of the most punishing, painful, and disappointing examples of artistic excess and self-indulgence to ever blight the silver screen. People will watch Donnie Darko years from now and ask "Whatever happened to Richard Kelly?"
Southland Tales happened. And that's the way his career will end: not with a bang, but with an empty theater.