Some movies are like watching the Hindenburg burn. I’m not talking about movies you expect to be bad (remakes, sequels, anything with a colon in the title), but about movies you had hopes for which sadden you (like Bonfire of the Vanities, the last twenty or so Woody Allen movies, everything Sam Mendes has made). Southland Tales is terrible. It is not good but for… anything, nor is it bad save for [insert what you like]. It is a mistake that could only be made in movies; the end result of an onslaught of sycophancy that must have been mind-bending to behold. Seriously – to those on set – was Richard Kelly drunk when he made this? Or is he just stupid?
This movie should be Dr. Strangelove. I don’t believe Kelly ever saw the wood for the trees clear enough to think of it that way, but think: Strangelove and at least you have a place to start. It’s a political satire set in the near future. There has been a terrorist incident in Texas and, as a consequence, the right-wing government has initiated a civil rights crackdown. A group of liberal insurgents, calling themselves the Neo-Marxists, are fighting an underground war against the regime. Both sides have an interest in a movie star who has recently reappeared after a presumed kidnapping. The movie star believes he is a prophet sent to foretell the end of the world…
Let’s begin with what Kelly did wrong: casting The Rock as “the movie star”. Now I like The Rock. He seems like a thoroughly decent human being. But he’s not an actor. I presume Richard Kelly thought: I know he’s not an actor, but that’s the point!, I’m satirizing how Hollywood would cast this role!… But that’s a stupid way of thinking. It’s pretty much the same for every role in Southland Tales: Sarah Michelle Gellar as a vapid Valley Girl porn star (because that’s, like, totally riffing on her public persona!); Sean William Scott as a racist cop (because, like, he’s Stifler, and only Hollywood would think he could do the stretch!)… Kelly wants to show us how clever he is by latching onto pop-culture semiotic talismans rather than casting correctly, and he buries his movie in the process. NB: You cannot satirize the medium of a satire (i.e. big budget action movies) at the same time as satirizing U.S. politics. This is a classic clever-clever director error: you make your message too complicated.
The only scene that works, tellingly, works because of someone else’s best efforts. There is a cracking karaoke number where Justin Timberlake (playing… God knows who) lip-syncs to The Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done” (chorus: I got soul, but I’m not a soldier) and for a moment the movie is what it wants to be: lean, witty, dazzled by violence, but sickened by it too, a cry against making war look good, made in the full knowledge that – to the Grand Theft Auto generation – violence will always look cool. Is the scene actually good? It’s meant to be a Busby Berkley number, but it looks like they shot it for nine bucks. Timberlake doesn’t look comfortable with irony. He doesn’t even swig beer convincingly. But the song works.
I didn’t like Kelly’s debut, Donnie Darko, for the genre-splicing. I couldn’t go along with those who thought that movie deep. All the worm-holes and the stuff-you’ve-gotta- watch-twice-for struck me as a distraction. What Kelly did well was to get inside a teenager’s head. He had a similar opportunity with Southland Tales. He could have talked about the War on Terror in a way that dealt with human truths. But his smarty-pants side got the best of him. Southland Tales signifies nothing. It’s a movie that wants to speak sincerely in quotation marks; too chicken to get angry, not witty enough to make you laugh. Movies like this won’t get us out of Iraq.