Donnie Darko is one of my top ten favourite films of all time. Director Richard Kelly managed to tell a story that had several layers, plenty of intrigue, and just enough science to make the fiction believable. His director’s cut was a little ham fisted, with unnecessary exposition and extra bloat that makes it weaker than the original, but the flick stands up as a great ride. Donnie Darko also stands out as one of the first movies that had a web site which really built upon the movie and created a backstory which made the movie better, which may have just been a product of the particular moment in time that gave us the Blair Witch Project, and Center of the Earth (which had one of the most amazing Flash applications I’ve ever seen).
Unfortunately Kelly’s sophomore effort, Southland Tales, doesn’t fare nearly as well as his debut.
The film is set in the very near future, on the eve of the 2008 presidential elections. After a series of terror attacks, the United States has become more xenophobic and has closed off even the interior state borders, and has institued a mandatory draft to amass soldiers for World War 3. The government takes control of the internet and creates IDent, the state controlled world wide web. With a looming energy crisis, a nobel prize winning scientist has figured out a new way of harnessing energy from the ocean’s movement which he will distribute wirelessly. With Los Angeles on the brink of destruction from overcrowding and terrorism from the Neo Marxist movement, we’re thrust into the midst of the Southland as an actor tries to recover from amnesia, while a Neo Marxist plot plays out around him.
There are some mediocre performances which hobble the film. Sarah Michelle Gellar seems to sleepwalk through her role. Bai Ling does her usual Bai Ling thing, and Christopher Lambert is sterotypical. You get the feeling that with the cast he assembled including Jon Lovitz, Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri, John Larroquette, Will Sasso, Kevin Smith, and Nora Dunn that he was trying to make something funny, but somehow got caught up in the whole “this is the way the world ends” part of the story and the funny got lost along the way.
That is not to say that the entire film was horrible. There are some brilliant performances. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson has a great role in the film as an actor who is caught up in a bunch of conspiracies and sub-plots. Lovitz is brilliant as a hard assed cop. Justin Timberlake has a strange role as a soldier, but he also narrates the film. The cinematography is borderline genius, and there is a dance scene with Justin Timberlake’s drunk soldier and a bunch of 50’s inspired dancers which is just mesmerizing.
At two hours and twenty five minutes, the movie felt bloated. There was a lot of stuff that could have been cut out, and frankly I was confused by more of the story than I was entertained. Not good “Syriana” confused either, this was more “WTF” confused…the sort of confusion you get while watching a Uwe Boll film.
There were about three seperate times where I almost walked away from the movie, but stuck with it because it looked like one of those films that was just about to become great, and the individual parts would all soon come together and create something brilliant. Unfortunately that never happened.
I’m interested to see if Richard Kelly can shake this off and come back with a brilliant third film, or if he’ll join the ranks of one-hit-wonder directors who never make anything of significance again.