To begin with, that reputation of the film is deserving. It is an ambitious, flawed mess, and to me, that is its greatest attraction. I would rather spend my time with a film--or, in fact, with any art--that pushes to be something different, that is reaching, and fails, that with something that has no ambition and succeeds. I often find that the lines, 'It tells a good story, and story is what's important here,' are connected to the latter, and I've grown wary of anyone who supports such belief as the primary goal of any fictional based art. To me, such an opinion is one that is based on a limited appreciation of what an artist can do, be it through stylistic devices, thematic content, experimentation, and so on and so forth. It's not always the case, but 'I just want a good story' is more often than not code for something that has all the style of a bank manager, no thematics, and a phobia of anything that might be challenging. I could go on, of course, but I would argue that the sheer apathy that can be felt towards the work produced out of a lot of mediums of late in fictional mediums is due to a lack of ambition.
Southland Tales, then, is a nice break in that. It offers an alternate reality--perhaps, indeed, the fourth dimension, where doubles exist, though this point is never made as strongly in the film as you would like--where an Orwellian world has sprung up in America, and oil prices rise, and soldiers with rifles sit on stands above you. Alternate fuels are rising, there's a draft, communist cell groups are in existence, and Christopher Lambert is driving an ice cream truck, selling weapons out of the back. In this world, celebrity and husband to Presidential candidates daughter, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Jonhson), wakes up in the desert with no memory, and ends, shortly after that, living with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who plans to use him for an ambitious plan to make herself a cultural identity. How, exactly, Boxer goes from amnesia to living with Krysta is never explained and someone difficult to figure, but if you can deal with it, you'll be preparing yourself for a lot of other moments where you'll have to skip over something that is not fully explained. At the same time that Boxer is walking around with a new screen play that explains how the world ends, Roland Taverner (Sean William Scott) is staring at his delayed image in a mirror, dressed in the police uniform he has stolen from his twin brother. He is part of a underground Marxist cell, having been dragged into a ridiculous plan to place Boxer in a fake racially motivated killing, as he researches the role of the Police Officer for his new film. At this point, you can throw in a mad scientist called the Baron, Bai Ling and her cool cigarette, and the narrator, Justin Timberlake, as Pilot Abilene, who seems intent on quoting from Revelations throughout the entire film, because, hey, the film is about the end of the world.
Still, Timberlake has a neat scene where he mimes to a Killers song, and he's not at all as objectionable as I thought he would be. Which, actually, can be said for a lot of actors in the film playing against their type: Sean William Scott is nicely understated in his role, Gellar pulls out a nice fragility at times, and people like Jon Lovitz, who appear in small cameos, are doing a fine job. The film is held together by Johnson, of course, but in truth, despite his nervous twitch of finger tapping, I didn't feel that he was stretching himself overly--he's a charismatic guy, however, and has a good screen presence, so there's nothing wrong about what he's doing.
However, the sheer number of people in the film, and the sheer number of plot lines, results in Southland Tales being very scattered. The Baron's plans for world domination are so odd that, if not for Timberlake's voice over explaining it to me, I simply would not be able to tell you why he was chopping off the hand of the Japanese Prime Minister. Since, after that, his evil seems confined to being with Bai Ling--whose character is called Serpentine--so I can't really tell you the point of it (and why use Boxer? It seems silly to do so, given his celebrity). Likewise, the whole fourth dimension stuff at the end never feels as if it is given any time to reach its full potential, and instead falls into a neat little resolution for one character and a rocket launcher for another. Likewise, the influence of the film script, which at times feels like it is influencing Boxer and others, and yet at other times feels like it is doing nothing, never amounts to more than the vague annoyance of people calling Boxer by a different name and him answering to it. Also, Sarah Michelle Gellar's pornstar character gets sidelined in the second half of the film, which I felt was a bit of a shame, given that what seemed to take her place was a character whose entire purpose was plot as a plot device. Oh, and occasionally, the film's references to Robert Frost and occasional 'insights' by characters made it feel as if the entire logic behind the film was sixteen, and was making a grand, High School loving film. But fortunately there's enough stuff in there that you can overlook it.
In fact, it might sound as if I didn't like the film based off what I've written, but the strange thing is, with the exception of the insights and frost, I liked all these ingredients. I especially like the way that televisions were used to seed information about the world to you. I liked the humour, I liked the weird, and I liked the crazy Baron, Teen Horniness is Not a Crime song, and all the other little bits of it.
It's just that none of them come together in the end.
Still, worth watching if you've never seen it.
Also, I decided no post would be complete without my favourite scene in the film: