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The Biggest, Ugliest Mess I’ve Ever Seen

January 19th, 2009 · 8 Comments

Southland Tales (2007)
Written by Richard Kelly
Directed by Richard Kelly
Produced by Darko Entertainment/ Cherry Road Films/ Persistent Entertainment/ Inferno Distribution
Running time: 145 minutes

Southland Tales 2007 poster Southland Tales DVD cover

Following the detonation of nuclear bombs in Abilene and El Paso, on July 4, 2005, martial law is declared in the United States. Three years later – as World War III rages across the Middle East, civil liberties at home are imperiled and the country searches for an alternative fuel source – movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) reappears in Venice Beach after disappearing for three days. Santaros – whose fiancée (Mandy Moore) is the daughter of Republican presidential nominee Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) – has shacked up with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star with her own issues-driven talk show and perfume line who has co-authored a screenplay with Santaros called The Power. The script depicts a not too distant future the actor begins to see coming true.

Meanwhile, a neo-Marxist cell in Venice Beach plans to swing California into the column of the Democratic Party. A porn director (Nora Dunn) first tries blackmailing Frost with a videotape of his future son-in-law cavorting with Krysta. When that fails to work, a sadistic, power drinking shrew (Cheri Oteri) plots to embarrass the police by abducting racist LAPD commando Roland Tavener (Seann William Scott) and replacing him with his twin Ronald (Seann William Scott). The neo-Marxists arrange a fake police shooting involving Tavener and two of their members (Amy Poehler, Wood Harris) which Santaros is to unwittingly record on tape while following Tavener on a ride along in preparation for his role in The Power. But instead, a real racist cop (Jon Lovitz) appears and kills the couple. Traumatized, Santaros reverts to the character in his screenplay.

Southland Tales 2007 Dwayne Johnson Seann William Scott

War veteran and movie star Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) sees all this from his perch on a gun turret above Venice Beach. Conspiracy theorists say that the flamboyant scientist Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) experimented on Abilene in Iraq with Fluid Karma, an alternative fuel generated remotely by the tides. As Westphalen’s Fluid Karma station goes online off the coast and his remote powered Mega Zeppelin takes to the skies on the Fourth of July, anarchy grips Los Angeles. Santaros learns that Fluid Karma created a time rift, which enabled him to travel an hour into the past and confront his dual self, who was mysteriously killed shortly thereafter. He also discovers that Roland Tavener stepped through the rift with him, that the commando’s “twin” is really Tavener’s dual self and that if the pair meets, the world will likely end. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.

Production history

After his debut film Donnie Darko left the Sundance Film Festival in January 2001 with dismal word of mouth and no distributor, Richard Kelly was irascible. “We were re-cutting and going through this struggle and pressure and I was really frustrated and angry. And I felt like my career was probably over, or ending, or in the process of ending because our movie didn’t get picked up and it didn’t seem like it was going to. And I wanted to write something about Los Angeles and my frustration with Los Angeles, even though it’s a town that I really love and continue to love.” Three weeks later, Kelly showed a draft of Southland Tales to his producing partner Sean McKittrick. “I gave it to Sean and he immediately called me and said, ‘We have to go get drunk. And we went and got drunk at Hinano, this bar in Venice Beach, and he said, ‘We have to make this. This is like, my favorite thing you’ve ever written.’ And it was basically the shell of the story that exists four years later.”

Southland Tales 2007 Justin Timberlake

Kelly had rewritten untold number of drafts of a supernatural thriller by Ryne Douglas Pearson titled Knowing with an eye on it being his follow-up to Donnie Darko, but budget and casting concerns by Fox Searchlight ultimately forced him to abandon it. Southland Tales – which had originally been conceived as a “big comedy with a bunch of crazy L.A. eccentric characters” – had evolved in the wake of 9/11, the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. “I was like okay, I have this apocalyptic comedy that ends with rioting and the city on fire and everything with all these crazy characters. I thought okay, if it’s really about the end of the world lets try to take it to the next level and make it about something much more then making fun of L.A., trying to blow up L.A., and I thought about all these ideas about homeland security and alternative fuel and I made it more of a science fiction, near future satire.”

Late in 2004, Seann William Scott and Sarah Michelle Gellar agreed to join the cast. At Sundance a few months later, Kelly met producers Bo Hyde and Kendall Morgan, whose company Cherry Road agreed to finance development. Prospective buyers didn’t know what to make from Southland Tales. Morgan recalls, “I got this all the time: ‘It’s a huge movie, you’ll never be able to make it for that much money.’” But once Dwayne Johnson – aka The Rock – agreed to star, Universal International stepped up to bankroll the picture in exchange for most of the foreign rights (Wild Bunch kicked in additional financing for distribution rights in France, Spain and Switzerland). In April 2005, it was also revealed that three graphic novels – written by Kelly and inked by Brett Weldele – would supplement the movie as an illustrated prequel. On a budget of roughly $17 million, a breakneck six-week shooting schedule commenced August 2005 in Venice Beach.

Southland Tales 2007 Cheri Oteri Christopher Lambert

The call sheet was eccentric to say the least. Kelly later enthused, “I think it helps to have the familiarity of these faces and the comfort of seeing, ‘Oh, there’s Buffy!’ or ‘There’s Stifler!’ or ‘There’s Justin!’ ‘There’s Cheri Oteri!’ ‘There’s Amy Pohler from Saturday Night Live!’ ‘There’s Jon Lovitz!’ They’re all these really fun people – they’re the funnest people for me to watch! You talk about how you want to populate a movie like you’d want to host a dinner party. They’re all very fun people you’d like to have at a dinner party and that’s what I wanted this movie to be because it’s about the end of the world; it’s about too many big, heavy topics -disturbing things and troubling issues – and I thought, ‘Lets make it as fun to watch as possible.’” Immersed in post-production in the spring of 2006 – with the visual effects still to be completed – the filmmakers were surprised to learn that the Cannes Film Festival had selected Southland Tales to vie for the prestigious Palme d’Or in May.

Fans would later refute the claim that Southland Tales was booed, but by all accounts, the screening was a disaster. Geoff Andrew, Time Out London: “Morally and metaphysically confused, unfunny, heavy-handed and as prone to waste, excess, idiocy and decadence as the emphatically allegorical world it imagines, it comes across as the dopehead nerd hipster’s alternative to The Da Vinci Code.” Sukhdev Sandhu, the Daily Telegraph: “It might conceivably work as a website or as a cult cable show; as an entertainment, it feels so protracted that, given the choice, most of the Cannes audience would have opted for the end of the world.” Andrew O’Hehir, “If Kelly recuts this, takes out all the nonsense and releases it as an experimental, almost wordless, nonnarrative film (at, say, 90 minutes) it might become a rare and beautiful thing. As it is now, it’s about the biggest, ugliest mess I’ve ever seen.”

Southland Tales 2007 Seann William Scott

Kelly would later question the wisdom of sharing his ambitious work in progress with the hardened, worldwide press corps at Cannes. “Usually when you have a movie, at that point you take it to Sherman Oaks and show it to a bunch of teenagers at [sic] screening. We took it to the Cannes Film Festival and showed it to the toughest audience in the world. Was that a good idea? I don’t know. But it happened, and you just sort of take the best from it.” Sony, THINKFilm, Picturehouse, Newmarket and First Look all put in bids to distribute Southland Tales in the United States, with Sony easily putting the best offer on the table. The studio also agreed to kick in more money for special effects, with the caveat that Kelly clip his running time, which was then 160 minutes.

In an effort to make the impenetrable storyline coherent, Kelly inserted an animated prologue referred to as “the Doomsday Scenario Interface” using imagery from the graphic novels to bring audiences up to speed to the events overtaking the country in the wake of World War III; America reinstating the draft, a Hillary Clinton/Joe Lieberman presidential ticket in 2008 and an oil crisis. Sony paid for Kelly to add 90 new effects shots at a cost of $1 million. In return, he chopped 15 minutes off the Cannes cut, most notably the character of a general played by Janeane Garofalo (the actress can be glimpsed with Justin Timberlake near the end of the movie). Kelly also rerecorded Timberlake’s entire voice-over narration. “I misdirected Justin. It was a little too sarcastic. When we did it again, I had him watch Apocalypse Now, so he ended up doing it very deadpan, very dry.”

Southland Tales 2007 Sarah Michelle Gellar Mandy Moore

When Southland Tales finally opened November 2007 in the United States, almost every print critic flushed it. Josh Rosenblatt, the Austin Chronicle: “It appears that Kelly spent the intervening years taking hallucinogenic drugs, reading Philip K. Dick novels upside down, and – most disastrously – believing his own hype.” Carina Chocano, the Los Angeles Times: “You get the sense that Kelly is too angry to really find any of it funny. It’s easy to empathize with his position, not so easy to remain engrossed in a film that’s occasionally inspired but ultimately manic and scattered.” Roger Ebert, the Chicago-Sun Times: “Yes, I admire Kelly’s free spirit. In theory. He is a cinematic anarchist, but the problem is, he’s throwing bombs at his own work. He apparently has no sympathy at all for an audience unable to understand his plot, and every scene plays like something that was dreamed up with little concern for what went before or would follow after.”

Failing to expand beyond 63 theaters, Southland Tales flatlined at the box office with $275,000 in the U.S. and $99,000 overseas. The same month his movie was playing in empty arthouses, Richard Kelly spoke to Lisa Garibay of El Paso’s Newspaper Tree: “You know, all throughout production on Southland Tales, there were a lot of actors and crew who were like, ‘Ok, we have no idea what is going on with this story, but we trust you.’ And just holding onto that trust, it does get a little frustrating after a while when people are just like, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t understand what you’re doing.’ And I keep saying, ‘Trust me, and at the end when it’s all finished, you will!’ It was the same way with Donnie Darko … So there’s been a lot of that and it’s just a little exhausting after a while when people keep saying, ‘’We don’t get it. We don’t get it.’ But I’m always confident that when it’s finally finished, they’ll come up to me after the screening and they’ll say, ‘I get it now.’”

Southland Tales 2007

The opening sequence of Southland Tales – a block party interrupted by a mushroom cloud rising into the sky – bleeds supernatural dread into an otherwise mundane suburban setting with all the technical virtuosity Richard Kelly demonstrated in Donnie Darko. The remaining 144 minutes of his follow-up contains some eye popping graphics and occasional flare-ups of ingenuity, but vaporizes the audience right along with Abilene. The film tries too hard to comment on every anxiety – and I mean every anxiety, right down to tasteless TV commercials – threatening the world post-9/11. But as if obscured in a haze of bong smoke, Southland Tales isn’t serious enough to be a thriller, isn’t funny enough to be a comedy and never really checks in with reality, so doesn’t qualify as satire either. Whatever the hell this is could be debated in film schools for generations, likely in a course on how to commit career suicide and take an audience along with you.

Southland Tales
is cast and scripted on such scale that its ineptitude is almost too big to comprehend. Kelly cast a number of B-movie faces from the ‘80s – Christopher Lambert, Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, the munchkin from Poltergeist – as well as so many Saturday Night Live veterans that Chris Kattan must be pissed he didn’t get a reading. Or, maybe not. Nobody is given a character to play or an opportunity to show they can act; their mere appearance is supposed to be the joke. The writing is angry, divisive, infantile, half baked and haplessly convoluted. Timberlake’s narration riffs on Apocalypse Now, but that movie had a concise story: Willard is headed up the river to kill Kurtz. I cannot begin to unravel who was going where or why in this movie. Richard Kelly is a talent, but not a one of his ten producers had the sac to call “bullshit” on his sloppy script. The audience gets to experience the results in the form of a historic clusterfuck.

© Joe Valdez

Southland Tales 2007 Beth Grant Zelda Rubenstein John Larroquette Wallace Shawn

Tags: Alternate universe · Ambiguous ending · Black comedy · Crooked officer · End of the world · No opening credits

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rachel // Jan 19, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    I certainly share your opinion, Joe. Any film that flaunts Bai Ling automatically loses its credibility, though there was already none to spare here.

    On another personal viewing note, my experience watching this was even worse, because I rented it from Netflix, which said the movie was only 100 minutes long (or an hour and forty minutes) but when I sat down to watch it, the stupid thing ended being 140 minutes long, sucking that much more of my life away.

  • 2 Moviezzz // Jan 20, 2009 at 7:49 am

    I was prepared to like this film, yet could barely make it through it. I think I had to hit the FF button through much of it. Unwatchable is the best word.

    Although I did like Cheri Oteri in it. That is all I remember about the film.

  • 3 Aaron // Jan 20, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Joe: Been reading and enjoying the site for a while, always a pleasure.
    Your opinion pretty much sums it all up here.
    I had to watch the 140min cut in two shifts via my PDR. The issue is the script, editing, storyline and soundtrack are so messy and incoherent that the film just doesn’t hold one’s attention for more than an hour.
    It never turned up in theaters in Australia, so cable TV or DVD were my only options in seeing it. Honestly the ability to stop and walk away for an hour was possibly the only reason I saw the film until it’s ending. That as well as being a little bored during the holiday break and hopelessly waiting in vain for the film to pay off. Which it doesn’t; only presenting a tired grandfather paradox that was used in an episode of Stargate in 1998…
    It was funny seeing it pop up here as I saw it for the first time only a few weeks ago.

  • 4 AR // Jan 21, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    I almost want to see this because it looks like a big glorious train wreck.

  • 5 Jeff McM // Jan 23, 2009 at 3:29 am

    This is one of those movies that has so many scattered moments of brilliance, surrounded by a turgid morass of gunk. It’s kind of a shame that it ended up as such a mess, and I agree that the producers should have reined in Kelly, for his own good if nothing else.

  • 6 Pat Evans // Jan 23, 2009 at 4:53 am

    This must be one of the worst sophomore efforts ever from a promising filmmaker. One would have hoped for so much more after Donnie Darko and it looks as if Kelly may take the Cimino route (however I personally think that Heaven’s Gate is one of the most unfairly maligned films).

  • 7 Joe Valdez // Jan 23, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Rachel: I can apologize for Netflix, at least. If they’d given me a job in 2007 and got me working on their literature, I could have saved you 40 minutes of your life. Congratulations on becoming a mom; you should plenty of spare time now to comment on This Distracted Globe (yeah, right).

    Jim: I agree with you about Cheri Oteri. She is a terrific presence in this flick even as it circles the drain. Too bad she’s acting off Christopher Lambert and Jon Lovitz. That’s like Alison Kraus jamming with Milli Vanilli. Thanks for commenting!

    Aaron: Other than script, editing and soundtrack, the movie has a lot going for it. Uhhh. I don’t know what would be worse, watching it on a huge screen at the Arclight or enduring it on a PDR. Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts with the rest of the class.

    Amanda: Far be it from me to try to tell someone not to watch a movie. I’ll leave that to the critics. What I do enjoy is writing about movies in such a way that when you do watch them, you’ll be a more informed filmgoer. Screening Southland Tales at film schools wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually. It’s an historic example of how off course a young filmmaker can go by smoking too much pot, surrounding yourself with sycophants and obliterating your audience with bullshit. Thanks for commenting!

    Jeff: Southland Tales has a lot in common with 1941 but beyond that, the major problem is that Steven Spielberg had directed two blockbusters and a critical hit before he tried to destroy L.A. And he had John Belushi. Kelly tries for same effect with Jon Lovitz and much less experience behind the camera. Thanks for commenting.

    Patricia: Yeah, I’d really have to think about it for a while before I could name a more disastrous 2nd effort from a promising filmmaker. Mallrats perhaps, but then you’d have to admit Kevin Smith was a promising filmmaker. I’m a fan of Heaven’s Gate and if I may promote myself here, I hope you checked out the article I wrote on it Jan. 1. It’s always good to see you comment here.

  • 8 Matt // Sep 15, 2011 at 1:07 am

    I loved this film. I can’t actually tell you why to be honest. It reminded me of the indie film rubber. It defied the guidelines of drama and went straight from noir into schizophrenic nightmare. In so doing, it explored the breadth and depth of scene to scene vignettes. In many ways, the movie much like our own lives had no point. It simply was. And it was not without interesting, unique, and entertaining visuals and dialogues.

    Don’t feel ripped because you didn’t get a story arch. Be glad you were liberated from the story arch and were given an opportunity to watch very talented people really explore their craft. And then… just enjoy it.

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