First of all, I freely admit to being one of the few people who didn't go for Richard Kelly's 2001 debut film Donnie Darko. I found it a weak attempt at David Lynch-esque pop surrealism, aimed at angsty teenagers. Years later, I agreed to watch it again, after reading all the notes on the film and after Kelly's "director's cut" bent over backwards to convince his audience that what he really made was a complicated science fiction movie. The reformatted story made more sense, but it also took away what little heart Donnie Darko actually had.
Now that Kelly's long-awaited sophomore effort Southland Tales has hit the screen, I am more convinced than ever that the emperor's not wearing any clothes: Richard Kelly is just a bad filmmaker.
Set in a sci fi version of 2008 Los Angeles, Southland Tales is a mess, juggling a trillion plotlines and characters, including the Republican vice presidential candidate and his family, a Hollywood movie star (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) who has gone missing, a national security tracking system that keeps tabs on everybody, a porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who is trying to sell a screenplay she wrote with The Rock, Seann William Scott playing two characters, a mysterious alternative fuel, neo-Marxists, World War III, the Apocalypse, the Second Coming, and legions of cheesy B actors and former Saturday Night Live stars. And Justin Timberlake.
It's ambitious, to say the least. Overly ambitious. Way overly ambitious. While Kelly continues to ape Lynch's trademark weirdness – Wild at Heart is the main influence, but Mulholland Drive is there too (Kelly even uses Mulholland's Latin chanteuse Rebekah Del Rio in a similar scene), and there's quite a bit of Kathryn Bigelow's mediocre Strange Days as well – the life Kelly's leading as a director is more akin to that of George Lucas: lots of half-baked ideas, some terrible casting choices, and nobody to lean over his shoulder to tell him, "Make some serious script revisions, or have somebody else write your screenplay."
After the cult success of Donnie Darko, Kelly seems convinced that he is a genius, as his pretentious storyline reveals: only the last three "chapters" of an apparent six-chapter saga are presented in the film, with audiences expected to buy the first three chapters in graphic novel form – essentially forcing people to once again do lots of homework in order to fully "get" the movie, just as with Donnie Darko.
But I'm not buying it.
Despite the heavy-handed use of Biblical references and classic poetry (particularly T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men, which Kelly paraphrases), the low humor and flat dialogue in this tepid satire betray Kelly's true sensibilities: Look, there's Kevin Smith dressed up like an old man! Haw haw, John Larroquette from Night Court got his private parts tasered! Tee hee, The Rock just called that slutty Bai Ling a "bitch", and then she fell on the floor going "Ooh!" – that'll show her!
This is an awful film, devoid of any truth, emotion, intelligence, or genuine creativity. (Kelly works hard to explain a lot of his story here, too, and guess what – in the end, it's kind of like Donnie Darko, with its parallel universes and temporal shifts and such.) The actors recite their lines woodenly, looking as lost as the rest of us. (I assume Johnson, Scott, and Gellar signed on for Kelly's hipster cred; the rest of the cast were surely just hungry for work.) Even the CG effects are poorly done! Even the cinematography's bad!
I could go on, but what depresses me most is that there will doubtlessly be new fans who will defend all this shabbily-executed nonsense as "visionary", and the misguided cult of Richard Kelly will only grow.