There are bad movies. CATWOMAN was bad. GOOD LUCK CHUCK was bad. And then there are movies that are not just bad, they are events. PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. ISHTAR. WATERWORLD. BATTLEFIELD EARTH. SWEPT AWAY (the remake), PEARL HARBOR. Many contend, but few achieve the apotheosis to that rarified circle, but SOUTHLAND TALES, with is droll mix of flat humor and opaque storytelling becomes a first among equals. Roundly booed at Cannes, it is everything it was rumored to be and more. Or less, actually, even with the also rumored feverish recutting by writer/director Richard Kelly whose only achievement was to cut Janeanne Garofalo into a two-second cameo, sparing a fine actress the embarrassment of further association with the flick. While his efforts came to naught, there is something touching about a man who won’t give up on a lost cause, even if it means inflicting it with the public at large.
Fittingly enough, the premise is the apocalypse. It’s the summer of 2008, and World War III has been going in since the 4th of July nuclear attacks on Texas in 2005. The Patriot Act has been extended, the presidential tickets boast Clinton-Lieberman on one side, and Eliot-Frost on the other. Bobby Frost, to be exact, and both T.S. and Robert are quoted, and frequently re-written throughout the script. From this we learn even the more erudite of allusions don’t help when a film is going belly up. Other poetry is quoted as well. That would be the Revelations of St John, voiced in flat, nasal, almost whiny tones by Justin Timberlake, who spends most of the film sitting behind a lone artillery gun sporting a scar shaped like a monocle. And yet, that isn’t the worst part, though the rest of his voice-over, used to explain salient points and plot twists that would not otherwise be apparent to even the most attentive viewer, is equally stupefying. When the film breaks into a music video starring Mr. Timberlake, well, why not, that’s his day job, after all, but it’s no more invigorating than the rest of his performance.
Meanwhile, there’s a Marxist-inflected underground operating out of Venice Beach, a mad scientist (Wallace Shawn looking and performing like a waxwork in a moderate state of decay) has solved the world’s energy problems, which is good since the oil fields of the Middle East are a battlefield, and action star Boxer Santeros (Dwayne Johnson) is at the center of a convoluted plot to embarrass his father-in-law, Bobby Frost. Or he may be at the edge of the plot, or incidental to it for all the film helps its audience to work that out. Certainly the ending is no help, though it does afford Johnson the opportunity to say the line “move to the rear of the mega-zeppelin.” This is just after Mandy Moore as Boxer’s wife, and Sarah Michelle Geller as his porn-star mistress, tango together both with and without him.
Moore’s apple pie face glazed into a mask of perpetual dyspepsia, and Geller’s elfin one looking uncomittedly pouty beneath its several pounds of eye makeup are what dominate that interlude.
Now, strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to have an intelligible plot in order to make a good film as long as there is an all-encompassing sense of mood and tone. David Lynch, for example, has spent his career pushing that envelope to its utmost extreme. On the other hand, pretending to have a plot, or several ones all muddled together, fail to achieve the tone thing. Neither does changing moods and executing the variations badly. The comedy here plays like amateur Strindberg, while the attempts at actual drama are like a Bergman film as conceived by Adam Sandler. The pacing is as muddled as the story, with the film drifting from one bit of queasy art direction to the next.
Few make it out of this mess with their dignity intact, Nora Dunn, John Laroquette, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler are lifeless even when wielding weapons of mini destruction, and the divine Miranda Richardson seems to have given up and is taking her cues from the stand-up collar of her costume by playing Fu Manchu.
Oddly enough, though, it is Johnson, the non-actor actor who fares best. His natural charisma serves him well, when hamming it up like top-shelf proscuitto, or looking befuddled as events happen and women, like Bai Ling sporting her trademark attire of an extended G-string, throw themselves at him. He’s obviously not overthinking anything, especially when told by his director to waggle his fingers from time to time in a simulacrum of a tizzy. He provides the only respite in the otherwise arid 2 hours, 24 minute running time. Of course that’s balanced with a commercial depicting, graphically, two CGI SUVs engaged in carnal congress. Two words: quivering chrome. Like the film as a whole, it lacks wit, insight, panache, or even a sense of fun, becoming instead an image that no one should have to live with.
SOUTHLAND TALES is pointless, rambling, and irritating. A monumental mess pretending to be astute, it trivializes its politics, its actors, its audience, and cinema as a whole.