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Richard Kelly's latest is sure to let down fans of 'Donnie Darko'--and movies in general

Southland Tales, by Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly, is a mixture of every science-fiction, near-futurist theme from the last 15 years, tossed together in a sizzling wok of inanity.

If I were to give it a two word review, it would be "sucks," and I'd save the second word for some other film. But in spite of its overwhelming awfulness, there are plenty of good bits: It's just that finding them is like trying to eat caviar that you accidentally spilled into dog vomit.

Kelly claims that he wrote Southland Tales while in a huffy mood about his difficulties getting Donnie Darko distributed. That makes sense, because it plays like the diary of a resentful 12-year old who sits on a stack of Warren Ellis comics while he complains that it's not fair, not fair, not fair, that he didn't get what he wanted. The film takes the basic plot conceit of Donnie Darko (a movie I find deeply compelling) and then drags it out of the suburbs and tosses it into a mélange of pop-surrealist, post-Sept. 11 conspiracy theories and lame stand-up jokes about Los Angeles.

Which is too bad, because what made Donnie Darko work was the darkness it found in its suburban setting. In Southland, everything is brightly lit, and the setting is Los Angeles, which is mushy and sour and rotting at the bottom of the satire tree.

And not only does Kelly enlighten us to the shallowness of L.A. (Who knew!?), but he also daringly suggests that the government of the United States would be more than willing to use the threat of terrorist attacks to condense power. Further, he hints that government is in cahoots with big business and, of course, as in most films, that scientists are evil.

There is a fun trail twisting through the connections between the evil scientist (Wallace Shawn), his dragon-lady stereotype assistant, Serpentine (Bai Ling), the group of radical communists who are trying to stop him (including Cheri Oteri and Nora Dunn), the confused film star who's just travelled back in time (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and the twin police officers whose brotherly love can remake or destroy the world (Seann William Scott.)

I think the basic plot could actually have worked, but the execution is horrible. First, Johnson, who's pretty much the lead actor, plays the part like a pro athlete trying to fake his way through an ill-conceived comedy bit on a weak-season episode of Saturday Night Live. He keeps twiddling his fingers together and staring manically at the horizon, which I guess is method acting for "huh?"

Most of the actors follow this style, doing goofy, one-joke characters, which makes it pretty hard to care about anything that happens. I've heard it proposed that the whole movie is supposed to be Brechtian theater, and that's why everyone is so one-dimensional. If so, then I applaud Mr. Kelly for killing Brechtian theater.

The surrealism of the film would be fine if at least something in it seemed real; that's how surrealism works, generally: You see freakishly exaggerated characteristics, but still feel a strong connection to human life. Southland Tales' assortment of caricatures and gee-whiz ideas is more like a comic-book script written by a 14-year-old, which is real, I guess, but not in a good way.

Especially disappointing, but keeping within this theme, was the cinematography. Everything is shiny and brightly lit and busy, which is very L.A., but it all feels like the camera placements were stolen from first-person shooter video games and three-camera sitcoms. Which, again, could be part of the theme.

So I really can't rule out that everything is on purpose, and that Southland Tales is a huge, intricately conceived satire and a slap in the face to the audiences who love all of its elements when they're taken separately, but would be horrified to see them all slopped together.

The problem, for me, is that they did seem slopped together. There was nothing that made any of it seem important: The political commentary was obvious, the acting off-putting, the sets silly and uninspired. And while there is a grand conspiracy that motivates all the action in the film, it's not an interesting conspiracy. It's just complex. By the end, you'll have put all the pieces together--or at least most of them. A lot of the backstory is only available in the three-volume comic book that Kelly released in the months leading up to the film. So it's a film that asks you to read a comic book in order to understand it.

But even when you understand it, a lot of its allusions are just sort of tossed in with little reason other than to create the appearance of literary depth. There are references to Robert Frost, Estes Kefauver, the noir film Kiss Me Deadly, Jenny von Westphalen (Karl Marx's wife) and probably three dozen other sources meant to intellectually redeem this rambling, uninspiring mess.

I'm sure that if Kelly had done a better job of shooting and editing the film, and if his actors had pretended they were in a movie instead of a YouTube video, things would have gone better. As it stands, this is a film only for die-hard Kelly enthusiasts, a group whose numbers will probably decrease as more people see Southland Tales.

Southland Tales
Rated NR

More by James DiGiovanna

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