You can get a pretty good idea of Southland Tales from a quick description of its characters. Dwayne Johnson plays Boxer Santaros, a movie star in Richard Kelly's all-too-near dystopian future. But it's not that straightforward. Johnson plays The Rock playing Boxer Santaros, while Boxer is playing the role of a character he's researching, one Jericho Kane. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an ageing porn-star with a business portfolio that includes energy drinks. And Sean William Scott? Well, he plays a cop's amnesiac twin brother, as part of a neo-Marxist scheme to overthrow the government. Or does he? And you thought Donnie Darko was confusing. Welcome to Southland...
The year is 2008. Justin Timberlake - did I forget to mention him? He plays a drugged-up Iraq war veteran with a huge scar on his face. Who sits in a huge chair with a huge rifle, guarding "Fluid Karma", an ultra-valuable perpetual motion wave machine that is the new form of power since oil has become rare and therefore massively expensive. Politics, anyone? Anyway, JT (who might be telepathic) narrates over an introduction comprised of graphic novel slides and MTV-meets-FOX news bulletins that guides us from our present to the "present" of Kelly's 2008 Southland. The passage of time has not been kind to the US; a nuke has gone off in Texas, and the country has become a police state. The most "recent" clip reveals that Boxer (played by Dwayne Johnson playing The Rock) has disappeared without a trace, which is where the movie begins. Or does it? By this stage, you just might have gotten the impression that Southland Tales is a bit of a mess. And you'd be right. Kelly's attempt at a politically-charged all-encompassing comment on the world that can also appeal to the youth of today does ultimately fall flat, but that's not to say it's without its merits. The satire's often sharp, and the way the movie skips from genre-to-genre (dystopian conspiracy to Scooby Doo farce to musical to action movie) works surprisingly well without jarring too much. The music, while not perfect (I'm pretty sure Black Rebel Motorcycle Club won't have the kind of comeback that allows them to host LA's 4th of July weekend party next year...) creates some of the movie's more memorable moments, such as JT's Killers dance number and the captivating three-way dance toward the end.
The deliberately exaggerated performances are, for the most part, very good, with Johnson capturing the action man (playing an action man - going through a crisis - playing an action man) role very well. The way he switches from the kind of guy who pours beer over himself as a form of refreshment to jittery neurotic mess is both funny and engaging, allowing you to see a little of the man beneath the steely facade.
Unfortunately, this is as close as you'll get to the characters. While the overplaying is amusing, it excludes you on an emotional level. Donnie Darko worked so well because it drew you in, but Southland seems to deliberately keep you at arm's length lest you miss out on some of Kelly's political messages. For all its mystery, intrigue, and action, it feels a bit soulless, and goes out with a whimper as opposed to the bang it so desires.
Southland Tales is an ambitious film, but a messy one, and while it may not work on the kind of level it's aspiring to, in a movie climate where so many films play it safe, at least Kelly tries. Very flawed, but entertaining nonetheless.