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Southland Tales (2006)
Writer and director: Richard Kelly
review by Alasdair Stuart
In 2005, nuclear attacks tore Texas apart and sent America careening into fighting a war on multiple fronts. Three years later, the country has polarised to the extent that travel visas are needed to cross state lines, and Venice Beach has become a hub of the Neo-Marxist movement, an extreme left-wing group dedicated to fighting to keep the state Democratic in the imminent elections. It's also home to Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) and his Liquid Karma device, a colossal power plant built out in the ocean, which, he claims, will be able to transmit 'wireless power' and solve the country's energy problem.
Against this background, two men find themselves pawns on very different sides of an incredibly complex game. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson), movie star and Republican darling, wakes up on Venice Beach with no memory of how he got there, only that he and Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) have a script that must be made. A script about a cop called Jericho Kane, who discovers that a unique new power plant is contributing to the end of the world...
At the same time, Officer Roland Taverner, an Iraqi war veteran is going mad. His reflection is out of sync with his body and he's crippled with guilt at the accidental maiming of Private Abilene (Justin Timberlake), media darling and his best friend and platoon mate. Unable to think straight, Roland is caught up in a complex scheme, that the neo-Marxists hope will discredit the Republicans forever, with Santaros at its centre. And in three days, the world ends.
It's no accident that so much of this review is synopsis and even then it doesn't come close to explaining the film's full plot. Kelly has traded in the precise, intimate, dangerous puzzle of Donnie Darko for a sprawling, generational satire that is as grossly self indulgent as it is, at times, dazzling. The first mistake made here is that this is a film at all. Viewers familiar with Oliver Stone's Wild Palms mini-series will find the comparisons inevitable and this is a story that truly could do with being given five hours to work with instead of two. There are simply too many groups of characters, and too many agendas and relationships, for it to be even remotely coherent in this format, and the end result is that vital moments simply pass by unremarked. It took two viewings for it to be clear why Taverner and his colleagues were referred to as UPU2 (urban pacification units) and even then there are elements which are charitably, unclear, and uncharitably, grossly self indulgent.
The prime offender here must surely be Baron Von Westphalen. Shawn, famous for his standout role in The Princess Bride is a disaster here, accompanied by a motley crew of actors who appear to have wandered in from an entirely different film. Von Westphalen should be a reptilian figure, a real, palpable, intelligent threat and instead he's a caricature surrounded by caricatures. The fact that one of them is Serpentine, an Oriental pseudo-assassin played by Bai Ling who, according to the prequel graphic novel (handily not included here) may be the antichrist only makes matters worse. With the motivation provided by the graphic novel, she becomes merely a plot function. Without it, she's a leering, intensely irritating plot vacuum, and she's not alone. By the time Kevin Smith, heavily made up, appears as Simon Theory, a legless Iraq war vet in Von Westphalen's employ, who literally helps explain the plot, you could be forgiven for turning the movie off.
There are simply too many characters here and many of them, like Von Westphalen and his colleagues, are painted in far too broad terms to be remotely successful. Ami Poehler and Cheri Oteri's potentially interesting neo-Marxists become shrill stereotypes far too easily (although the faux racial shooting is genuinely very funny) whilst the likes of Jon Lovitz, Holmes Osbourne, and John Larroquette are wasted in roles that deserve to be so much bigger and sharper.
Despite its faults, there are moments in the film that do work. Johnson adds another string to his bow with a performance that is subtle, almost mannered and holds much of the film together and Seann William Scott is his equal in every way. However, the real surprise here is Timberlake. His scarred, bitter Abilene is a fascinating figure, an omniscient narrator as well as a participant who is central to the film's single, shining moment. High on Liquid Karma, which, conveniently, is also a drug, he hallucinates singing along to All The Things I've Done by The Killers, surrounded by Marilyn Monroe look-alikes. There's a glorious moment where he suddenly falls out of time with the music, slumping dejectedly as the dancers twirl around him. It's subtle and devastating, perfectly showing Abilene's emotional state with an impact completely lacking from the rest of the film.
Southland Tales is an intensely frustrating experience, periodically fascinating but far too often wasting a gift of a cast. All involved are capable of so much better and with any luck, Kelly's next film will balance his clear ambition with the discipline needed to get the job done.
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