Abyzantine doomsday freakout that also somehow feels eerily familiar, “Southland Tales” is Richard Kelly’s panoptic denunciation (or sendup, it’s hard to tell) of the imminent, oil crisis-fueled apocalypse as seen from Los Angeles. The movie was booed at Cannes when it screened there last year, though I don’t know what that says about it beyond noting that it joins the ranks of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” and Pamela Anderson. Since Cannes, “Southland Tales” has been extensively re-cut -- though, at 2 hours and 24 whacked-out minutes, it’s hard to imagine what it looked like before.
The director’s second film after the cult hit “Donnie Darko,” his new movie is even more logic-resistant than his first, though hopefully it’s not quite as prescient. (The September 2001 release of “Donnie Darko” was delayed because of its inopportune imagery of a commercial airliner fuselage falling out of the sky.) The scariest -- and best -- moment in “Southland” takes place before the credits, during a scene at a children’s birthday party in Abilene, Texas, where a passed-around video camera happens to record the detonation of an atomic bomb smuggled across the Mexican-American border by members of Al Qaeda.
From here, we get the rundown on the three years leading up to 2008: World War III has begun, the draft has been reinstated, access to oil is limited, there are no alternative fuel programs in place, the Patriot Act has been expanded to place all of cyberspace under federal control, and the 2008 presidential election will be decided entirely by California’s electoral votes. Meanwhile, in celebrity news, top action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) -- husband of Madeline Frost Santaros (Mandy Moore), whose father, Sen. Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), is the current Republican vice presidential candidate -- disappears into the desert and reappears a short time later with amnesia and an entrepreneurial porn star girlfriend named Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) with whom he’s written a doomsday screenplay.
What happened to Boxer and who’s responsible? It’s apparent that someone, somewhere has cooked up a plot of some kind, but that could be almost anyone. In the three days leading up to the third anniversary of the attacks on Abilene, local neo-Marxist guerrillas from Venice Beach (mostly actors, documentary filmmakers, porn directors and slam poets who oppose total federal control of cyberspace) scheme to blackmail Boxer’s powerful family.
Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), an insane, autocratic German scientist with dreams of world domination, introduces a new alternative source of energy that draws power from the ocean called Fluid Karma, which also happens to be a hallucinogen he tested on American soldiers in Iraq.
There’s a racist cop played by Jon Lovitz; revolutionaries played by Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler; an Iraq war vet turned cop in search of his missing twin, both played by Seann William Scott; and a Jesus freak, dope fiend, movie star Iraq war vet played by Justin Timberlake, who also serves as narrator.
Whereas the loopy but foreboding tone of “Donnie Darko” made up for what the movie lacked in narrative coherence, the tone of “Southland Tales” is as hard to pin down as the plot. And the point isn’t too easy to locate, either. That’s not to say that Kelly doesn’t have one. It’s just that he has more than he knows what to do with.
A long, angry, often incoherent and occasionally brilliant yawp at the state of the world (which sometimes calls to mind an epic ramble by a drunken conspiracy theorist), the movie cloaks its outrage in nihilistic irony and layers and layers of allusion.
“Repo Man,” “Kiss Me Deadly,” the collected works of Philip K. Dick and the oeuvres of David Lynch and Kurt Vonnegut are an intrinsic part of the fabric of the movie, which contains screenplays, setups and hallucinations, which are further complicated by the fact that the movie is peopled by actors, twins, addicts, politicians and fanatics.
From one moment to the next, “Southland Tales” is a political farce, a noir doomsday chiller, a paranoid fantasy, a “Saturday Night Live” sketch on acid, a musical and an Alex Cox punk rock reverie. The central narrative, if I followed it, mostly concerns the 2008 election, which is in the pocket of the Republican ticket -- the poetically named presidential candidate Eliot (as in “this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends”) and his running mate Frost -- who, in turn, are aligned with the big, weird, German alterna-fuel. Kelly inverts the presidential candidate’s poet-namesake’s prediction, saying that the world will end “not with a whimper, but with a bang.” But that bang won’t come from anything nearly as prosaic as another nuclear attack. It will involve a rift in the space-time continuum and a flying ice cream truck.
As the plot becomes more convoluted and the movie goes haywire, what saves it are its sardonic details. Krysta, a modern porn star, plans to release a single, host a reality show, develop a clothing line and launch a fragrance. A military vehicle is emblazoned with an ad for Hustler magazine. The protagonist of Boxer’s screenplay is “Jericho Kane” -- a name similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in “End of Days.”
Kelly must have had Karl Marx’s remark -- that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce” -- in mind while writing because “Southland Tales” takes reality as far into absurdity as it will go without ever crossing the line into comedy. If it had, it might have been as effective as Mike Judge’s brilliant, buried “Idiocracy.” 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.
“Southland Tales.” MPAA rating: R for language, violence, sexual material and some drug use. Running time: 2 hours and 24 minutes. In wide release.
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