I thought I’d begin writing a quite possibly regular ramble about films that I might possibly classify as ‘Guilty Pleasures’, they might also be called ‘Bad Movies’ or ‘Cult Films’. Anyway, I’m going to begin by waffling on about what is probably the Guiltiest of all my Guilty Pleasures, because, well, it’s not a very good film at all yet I am continually oddly compelled to watch it. Repeated viewings have not diluted my dislike for it, but there’s some sort of strange germ of an idea here, some sort of vision gone awry that keeps pulling me back.
Southland Tales was Richard Kelly’s long-awaited follow up to his cult classic Donnie Darko. Darko did little business in a small cinema run in the U.S. but quickly found a large cult audience in the UK. Aided by a Christmas number one with Gary Jules’ cover of Tears 4 Fears ‘Mad World’ the film began to grow in popularity, with Prism releasing a vanilla DVD at bargain bucket prices around the same time. The film was given a second cinema release again with the eventual director’s cut where Richard Kelly added 20 minutes of pointless footage and changed the perfect soundtrack to more expensive but not as good songs.
Whilst all this was happening tidbits of information about Kelly’s Darko follow-up began appearing, it was, according to initial reports, going to be a apocalyptic musical set around a big July 4th beach party. Whilst aspects of that can be found in the final film the storyline is a lot more convoluted and ‘symbolic’ than that, and is both a draw and a wall for me as a viewer.
Southland Tales primarily concerns the disappearance of Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), his last movements saw him in the desert, travelling with another when their vehicle was caught in a strange explosion. A few days later Boxer re-surfaces and has been staying with entrepreneurial porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Boxer was, prior to this, engaged to a senator’s daughter and a group of Neo-Marxists plan to use a connection they’ve made with Krysta to frame Boxer. The machinations of their scheme are to give Boxer a ride-a-long with police officer Roland Taverner (Sean William Scott) as part of the research for his new movie ‘The Power’, but Roland has been replaced by his twin brother Ronald, who has been instructed to act like a fascist and set-up a (staged) shooting of a mixed race couple.
And that’s where things start to get really complicated, but the problem with the complications is that – unlike Darko – there is no real through-line to (a) the narrative of the movie or the arcs of the characters and (b) what Kelly is trying to say as a writer/director. Sure you can read in plenty of pseudo-religious allegory into the events played out in the film, this is made blatant by a character called Private Abeline (Justin Timberlake) who sees fit to quote from Revelations throughout the film’s awkward narration. The film also ties into Donnie Darko‘s theme of parallel universes and time travel, but despite Kelly’s over-complicating (see; over-thinking) of Darko’s multi-planed existence there was always something fundamentally simple to the story, something that an audience member could follow on any level. Southland Tales doesn’t have that.
So, why is it a guilty pleasure if it is such a terrible mess? Well, it benefits from having two absolutely charming lead performances (or three); Dwayne Johnson is quite wonderful as Boxer, displaying a klutzy Hollywood lunk naivety, a smart-mouthed James Bond-like side and a jittery, neurotic cartoon character side when he has a nervous breakdown. Sean William Scott takes his image as American Pie‘s Stifler and shoves it firmly in the bin playing the dual roles of Roland and Ronald, his character is the real heart of the film and he carries many difficult and frankly silly moments with skill and presence; in fact he completely sells the film’s finale where he confronts himself in the back of Christopher Lambert’s flying ice-cream truck (yes, you did read that right).
Elsewhere the cast is peppered with the good (Wallace Shawn in full The Princess Bride mode, Mandy Moore’s surprisingly fun as Boxer’s estranged fiance), the okay (Sarah Michelle Gellar never quite fits her role, though has some mildly amusing moments) and the ‘What the!?’ (Jon Lovitz as a racist, Philip K. Dick quoting cop, Kevin Smith as an ancient ZZ Top bearded font of exposition, Eli Roth as a guy on a toilet and Janeane Garafolo in a ‘my part was cut out of the movie’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo). It’s clear that there was so much good will placed into Kelly as a result of Darko that he could just fulfill a lot of eccentric casting fantasies, and, likewise, he convinced Moby to do the soundtrack purely on the musician’s love for Frank the Bunny.
And this is also where I can excuse Southland Tales, but more specifically Richard Kelly. As someone who often wonders about what I would do if given carte blanche as a film-maker I do indulge ludicrous fantasies about making highly inaccessible, lengthy, bizarre films with surreal pseudo-sci-fi plotlines, with a vein of humour running through it that is at times unfunny or at odds with the film’s seeming intent, all soundtrack by an erratic collection of songs I like. It’s movie-making by mix-tape mentality; I like this actor and this actress, I’ll put in this reference to this film and have this poster on the wall while this song plays. I want a bazooka and a zeppelin and a scene where two cars have sex. I’ll throw in enough easy symbols so that people can divine their own meaning in it all and I’ll say it has something to do with taking a satirical look at a post-9/11 world. And, y’know, maybe it does all make sense to Richard Kelly, but it just doesn’t hold up under any real scrutiny. Yet these are all things that kind of appeal to me about it.
Southland Tales is a bad film, but it seems to be made to the exact specifications of why I would want to watch a bad film. It just has so much thrown at it with the hopes that some of it will stick that I find myself wanting to watch it fall apart again and again, and instead of sitting here thinking ‘Oh this is rubbish’, I keep re-watching it almost willing it to actually work this time and get its act together. It never does though, because it’s a bad film. Even Kelly’s original Cannes cut (20 minutes longer with a more sarcastic narration) has all the same problems. There is just no hope for Southland Tales, it will never be a good film, but, it is a curious film and will continue to draw in viewers thanks to its sheer eclecticism and the fact that you can tell Kelly is trying so hard, and like the films of Ed Wood it’s that sheer, wide-eyed effort that makes it work even when the gravestones are wobbling.
© BRWC 2010.
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