People forget, but Donnie Darko didn’t get off to a great start either. Director Richard Kelly’s film debut premiered to mixed Sundance buzz in January 2001 and opened theatrically in September of that year to hopelessly scant sales at the box office. Somehow, America wasn’t quite in the mood for Frank the Bunny in the aftermath of 9/11. But in the heady, DVD-crazed early 2000s, it didn’t take Kelly’s idiosyncratic sci-fi love letter to DIY Halloween costumes long to find its cult following. The same can’t be said of Kelly’s follow-up, 2007’s Southland Tales, which remains, three years later after its release, little-seen and little-loved.
Long-delayed and plagued by editing problems, Southland Tales eventually opened in theaters to widespread, gleeful derision from filmgoers, most of whom never bothered to actually see the movie. The film’s detractors aren’t wrong, per se. Tales is an overstuffed, borderline-incomprehensible mess. Wildly ambitious and self-indulgent in the extreme, it’s as if Kelly tried to incorporate every stray idea he ever had for a comic book, videogame, or mixtape into one ungainly film starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The film begins as a glorious clusterfuck and ends as an even more glorious mega-clusterfuck full of sumptuous L.A. location shooting, radicalized ex-SNL cast members, and not one, but two levitating Stiflers. Tales isn’t a good movie, but it’s a fascinating one. And I’d always rather be fascinated than satisfied.
You could ask 100 people who’ve seen Southland Tales what the film is about and get 100 different answers, but here’s what I gather: The year is 2008 in an alternate-universe United States that has recently undergone nuclear attack, thus igniting World War 3. Tension is high as the draft is reinstated and the Presidential elections loom. Boxer Santaros (Johnson) is an action movie star “with ties to the Republican Party” married to the daughter (Mandy Moore) of the GOP’s VP candidate, Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne). Having recently and mysteriously gone AWOL, Santaros suddenly returns to L.A. with part of his memory erased, and shacks up with his mistress, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a plucky porn star-cum-talk show host and entrepreneur. But unbeknownst to Santaros, Now is conspiring with the underhanded, Venice Beach-based “Neo-Marxists” to frame Santaros for murder, causing a scandal for the Republicans and ruining their election chances. The plot is complicated by the involvement of twin brothers Ronald and Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), who may or may not be A) time travelers, B) the same person, or C) the Messiah. Also in play are USIdent, a nefarious government surveillance organization run by Santaros’s mother-in-law (Miranda Richardson), and “Fluid Karma,” a perpetually renewable alternative-energy source derived from psychic phenomena and the tides invented by the mercurial Baron Von Westphalen, played by an extremely fey Wallace Shawn. Also: Bai Ling, Zelda Rubenstein, John Larroquette, Kevin Smith, Justin Timberlake, Amy Poehler, Wood “Avon Barksdale” Harris, and Will Sasso. Oh, and Jon Lovitz with blond hair as a psychopathic rogue LAPD officer.
Let’s take a time out to talk about Jon Lovitz. Nothing in life delights me as much as Jon Lovitz delights me in this motherfucking crazy-ass movie. Not one thing. There is no amount of money I wouldn’t pay to watch a weekly TV series starring Jon Lovitz as a deranged, homicidal cop patrolling a dystopian L.A., coolly murdering scofflaws and looking badass. Ideally, this show would be called Lovitz or Leave It (in a Coffin) and a typical episode would include the following: Having tracked his prey to a nondescript industrial yard, Officer Lovitz backs the terrified perp up against an oil tank and draws his gun. Ignoring the man’s desperate pleas for mercy, Lovitz draws his weapon and utters his catch phrase: “You gotta Lovitz”. He pulls the trigger. Tank explodes. Perp = swallowed by fireball. Cracking the faintest of smiles, Lovitz turns to walk away, readjusting his Ray-Ban sunglasses as Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” rises on the soundtrack. Boom. Roll credits. I smell Emmy so fucking hard, you guys.
What were we talking about? Oh yeah, Southland Tales. In much the same way that a work of prose can be broken down into paragraphs, sentences, and individual words, a film can be dismantled into scenes, sequences, and individual shots. And it is in his sequences where Richard Kelly excels. None of his three feature films (Darko, Southland, 2009’s The Box) have what you’d term “coherent plot development”, but each has extended moments of pure visceral beauty. See Donnie Darko’s famous Gary Jules-assisted closing montage, or that film’s lengthy tracking shot through the halls of the titular character’s prep school, set to Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels.” Or The Box’s weird floaty liquid door thing. In moments such as these, Kelly proves he can pair sound and image like few young directors working today.
Southland Tales is lousy with these kinds of memorable set pieces, several of which can be found on Youtube. The most celebrated sequence is the Justin Timberlake “music video,” wherein the former Mouseketeer’s Iraqi war vet character drunkenly stumbles through a heavenly, fog-choked arcade lip-syncing to the Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done,” while surrounded by a murder of beautiful backup dancers dressed in skintight vinyl nurses’ outfits. Is it a dream? Well, it’s definitely not not a dream. Is it relevant to the plot? Who the fuck knows. Is it awesome? Yes, very. And it’s hardly the only such moment. The film concludes with another haunting dance number, a somber, hypnotic three-way tango between Geller, Johnson, and Moore aboard a psychic-powered megazeppelin set to a Moby song. As the climax of a sprawling sci-fi epic, this sequence fails completely, but as a slice of pure mood and atmosphere it’s pretty much perfect.
Moments such as the ones outlined above also point to one of Kelly’s great strengths as a filmmaker: his use of music. Kelly does pop music right. Any chump can put a Pixies song underneath iPhone footage of their cat farting and let Frank Black’s songwriting do all the heavy cinematic lifting, but Kelly consistently pairs his soundtrack choices with equally interesting and evocative visuals. And there are very few films out there who’s idea of pillow talk involves an ex-wrestler reciting Jane’s Addiction lyrics to a former teen pop ingénue.
Also: time-traveling monkeys. For real.
So, what have we learned? We’ve learned that scientists now believe that the future is going to be far more futuristic than originally predicted. We’ve learned that Boxer Santaros is a pimp, and that pimps don’t commit suicide. And last but not least, we’ve learned that teen horniness is not a crime. Southland Tales might not be everyone’s cup of Fluid Karma, but every filmmaker should at least aspire to Kelly’s audacity and ambition. That, and the willingness to cast Jon Lovitz.