Monday, August 11, 2008

The Obligatory Southland Tales Post

This is very, very untimely, but it's a movie I've resisted seeing. Donnie Darko is one of my favorite films of the new millennium (particularly the director's cut) and I didn't want anything to tarnish that. Worse, everything about this film set off my personal alarm bells. It's very common for young directors to go over the top with the followups to their sleeper/cult hits (Mallrats, anyone?) and the cast was not over-populated with my favorite thespians. I didn't find any of the Synchromystic Easter eggs I tend to look for and I thought the metaphysics of it were somewhat plodding; about the level of your average mid-70s comic book. But wait, it gets worse. And better, too. All at the same time.

Whatever my criticisms of the film are- and there are lots- it wasn't sandblasted from my memory the day after I watched it. And with the state of cinema being what it is, that's saying a whole hell of a lot. But I think Kelly the writer was not well-served by Kelly the director. Although it has its moments of dark humor, Kelly essentially plays it straight in Donnie Darko. I desperately wish he did the same in Southland Tales. Had he done so, the film could have really stirred something up. Comedy and drama are two separate animals entirely, and the broad, schticky humor Kelly went for here is usually beyond the reach of serious film-makers (meaning makers of serious films). Hiring a bunch of Saturday Night Live veterans isn't going to make your movie automatically funny.

There were a lot of compelling implications raised by the martial law scenario Kelly presents us with, but I felt he was a bit reluctant to follow them to their conclusions. The America that Kelly imagines would be a lot darker and a lot uglier than the one in Southland Tales. That might kill the comedy, but I think an old-school pro like Paddy Chayefsky (Network) or Stanley Kubrick would be able to pull it off. Kelly may have been undone by his youth here- you need a few bad years under your hat before you can really extract laughs from social and political horror.

As to the cast, Kelly gives us a quartet of charismatic and appealing enough leads in the Rock, Seann William Scott, Justin Timberlake and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Though none of them are putting fear in Meryl Streep or Ian McKellan's hearts, I don't blame any of them for their cartoonishly unconvincing performances. I blame Kelly's inexperience and over-ambition. The SNL types running in and out of frame are a wash for me- I can't stand Nora Dunn but I love Jon Lovitz. And Cheri Oteri- whom I also couldn't stand on SNL- is actually pretty good here.

As to the Synchromystic qualities of this film? Meh. Weak tea to my palette. The whole alternate universe bit I've read a trillion times in some really dumb comic books. The whole issue of self-identity as a glitch in our reality consensus didn't tickle my testicles either. We've seen a lot of that in a lot of much better films.

But given all that, I still put Southland Tales in the must-see column. The thing about an important filmmaker - which I believe Kelly has the potential to become- is that even their failures are more compelling than most others' successes. In addition to Kevin Smith's Mallrats misfire, Spielberg followed up Close Encounters with 1941, which actually inspired some critics to write him off as a director.

Maybe that's the necessary arc. You need to do your big, loud failure and get it all out of your system before you can get back down to business. Lest we forget, Kevin Smith (who has a fairly substantial acting role in Southland, almost in some kind of knowing sympathy with Kelly) followed Mallrats with Chasing Amy and Dogma, and Spielberg followed 1941 with Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET. Looking back, you realize that their failures laid the groundwork for their triumphs.

Similarly, I may not have found watching Southland Tales a particularly pleasant experience, but it's certainly on my mind a lot. Hence, me writing this post 8 or 9 months after the film was actually released and several weeks after I got around to watching it. And I was interested enough about what's on Kelly's mind to recently pick up the ST prequel graphic novel as well. Here's hoping Kelly gets the balance right with his next film.