Saturday, April 5, 2008

Two Experiments Gone Awry

As I mentioned last post, I was planning on engaging in what I had deemed “The Southland Tales Experiment,” which basically consisted of me watching Southland Tales and drinking lots of whiskey. Somehow I figured the addition of whiskey would drastically alter the experience of watching a movie that has been called “an incomprehensible, self-indulgent mess” (Austin Chronicle) and “a prettier, younger, and developmentally-challenged sister [of Mulholland Drive]” (Modern Fabulousity). Well, it didn’t really happen that way. At least not in the drastic way I expected. Basically what you’d probably to expect would happen did happen. I got a little drunk. That was really it. Oh well. On to the movie!

Southland Tales is, without a doubt, a big sprawling mess of a film. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I found it to be pretty enjoyable. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start with an attempt at a plot synopsis.

If you had to pick a lynchpin for all of the convoluted, interweaving subplots, it’d probably have to be Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, AKA “the Rock”). Boxer Santaros is a Schwarzenegger-esque action star who has married into politics and has strong ties to the Republican party (married to the daughter of a prominent Texas senator running for president in the 2008 election). Oh wait, let me back up a moment. The film opens in the “near future” of July 4th, 2005 (FYI: this thing has been delayed for years), when terrorists set off some nuclear bombs in a couple of Texas cities. In the wake of the attacks, the US government has instituted a state of martial law, issuing interstate visas, creating USIDent (a CIA/Homeland Security nightmare that spends its time spying on US citizens, including but not limited to monitoring stalls in public bathrooms), amongst other crazy dystopian style stuff. So, back to Boxer. Oh wait, I totally forgot about the tide-harnessing, perpetual motion machine that is destroying the universe. But first, let’s get to the Neo-Marxists. Or Justin Timberlake as the Revelations-obsessed, Iraq vet narrator. I’m sorry, is this frustrating? Well, welcome to the world of Southland Tales.

Let’s try this again. In 2005 terrorists set off nuclear bombs in Texas. In turn the US government declares war on numerous Middle Eastern countries, institutes martial law, creates the aforementioned USIDent, reinstates the draft, and generally tightens the noose around the public neck. Jump ahead a few years to 2008. The election is looming and civil unrest permeates the nation. With the war in the Middle East cutting off US access to oil, all collective faith is placed in a new form of alternative energy, Fluid Karma. A scientist has been able to harness the ocean tides to create a sort of force field of free energy off the Pacific coast. Now we can get to Boxer. Shortly before the start of the film’s story, Boxer has disappeared near Lake Mead, but is known to be somewhere in southern California. The presidential hopeful (also Boxer’s father-in-law) is desperate to find Boxer for the sake of his campaign. Turns out Boxer has amnesia and is shacking up with former porn-star turned entrepreneur Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and the two of them have written a screenplay together about the end of the world. While this is going on, there is also the Neo-Marxists, a revolutionary group, who seem determined to rig the election, bring down the US government, and cause just general craziness. The Neo-Marxists have kidnapped a UPU2 cop (Sean William Scott) and talked his disturbed twin brother (also Sean William Scott) into impersonating his cop brother in an attempt to stage a racially motivated shooting, thinking a racist cop in LA will somehow spur massive social reform. Well, at this point, it’d just be quicker to say that the Neo-Marxists, Boxer Santaros, the porn-star, the would-be president, the scientist and his perpetual motion ocean machine, the cop and his twin brother, and probably some stuff I forgot to mention all crash into each other, creating an intensely confusing web of plotlines that involve time travel, blackmail, drug use, war veterans, environmental-disruption-induced-epidemic-of-mob-violence, a bunch of stuff about souls and the apocalypse, and other wackiness.

There are a lot of ways to describe this movie. Sprawling, convoluted, overly ambitious, garish, nonsensical. The tone of the film is incredibly uneven, oscillating between near slapstick level comedy and end-of-times Biblical prophecy drama. Laugh out loud moments often transition uncomfortably into confusing, earnest, pseudophilosophical ramblings about the nature of existence and souls and identities and what not.

The biggest complaints that can be leveled against Southland Tales would have to be Richard Kelly’s mishandling of the more serious, dramatic elements, and the uneven nature of the film as a whole. That being said, the film is an incredibly fun ride. Kelly is able to effectively create a bizarre, thoroughly engrossing version of the future that is both wildly foreign and frightfully familiar. Terrifying and wholly believable elements like USIDent are mixed with comically despicable caricatures of our own popular culture (e.g. Krysta Now’s talk show, which features her and three other pornstars sitting on the beach discussing current events). If the two biggest problems are the drama and overall tone, the two biggest strengths are the comedy and the dystopian world Kelly creates.

Also of note is the performance of Dwayne Johnson. Since he left the WWF (or WWE, or whatever), I’ve seen him in a few things here and there. I have to say, the more I see of him, the more I like him. He’s not the best actor by any means, but he definitely possesses an affable charm. One of my favorite bits in the entire movie is the expression Johnson makes when he is shocked or scared (which happens a comical number of times, given his enormous stature), wherein his eyes bug out, his brow arches, and he does a sort of rapid finger-tenting motion.

Along with the Rock, Buffy, and Stifler, Southland Tales manages to wrangle together one of the most bizarre ensemble casts I have ever seen. Mandy Moore, Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Lou Taylor Pucci, Wallace Shawn (i.e. the Sicilian from the Princess Bride), Kevin Smith, and countless others play roles of varying size. This movie is a veritable parade of B, C, and D-list actors. It’s almost as if Kelly’s casting agent had never heard of extras.

Overall, I enjoyed Southland Tales. It is without a doubt not a film for everybody. Viewers will need to let go of trying to make sense of it, and even let go of trying to remember how all of the characters and plots relate to one another. In order to really enjoy it, you’ll need to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Turning your brain at least halfway off would go a long way. You know, maybe all that whiskey helped after all.

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