Rock and a soft face: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson romances Sarah Michelle Gellar in <em>Southland Tales</em>.

Can a film capture the current zeitgeist and still be an utter failure?

On paper, any work that faithfully re-creates the cultural components of a given point in time must inherently be good, in the sense of art imitating life. However, Southland Tales-Richard Kelly’s directorial follow-up to his cult hit mindbender Donnie Darko-ultimately fails to coalesce into a good film. Kelly, who also wrote the film, manages to include everything-Hollywood, a presidential election, war, porn, reality TV, terrorism, the energy crisis, indie music, Christianity, time travel, Southern California wildfires, the looming apocalypse, and Bai Ling-but warps them until the pieces no longer fit together. Not that they necessarily jibe outside the Kellyverse, of course, but audiences will leave Southland Tales with their heads spinning.

Now for the world’s most comparatively slim plot summary: Actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, aka “The Rock”) awakens in the Nevada desert without his memory and promptly hops atop porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), with whom he writes a screenplay about the end of the world. Meanwhile, a cop and his twin (both Seann William Scott) tangle with some liberal revolutionaries headquartered in Venice Beach. Then everything goes boom.

Johnson, Gellar, and Scott-each of whom were more celebrated stars when the long-delayed Southland Tales first went into production-acquit themselves admirably, creating fleshed-out characters amid the chaos. The preponderance of Saturday Night Live alums rounding out the cast succeed just as often as they fail, but, overall, underscore the satire of the pop culture-as-reality dynamic. If all that wasn’t enough, Kelly also manages to pay homage to surrealist greats David Lynch (Mulholland Drive’s Rebekah Del Rio cameos) and Matthew Barney (Cremaster-style kickline girls and an ominous zeppelin also appear). In short, a hot mess, but one that offers enough aesthetic stimulation and food for thought that one can’t discount it altogether.

Given the brink-of-disaster state of the world that’s about to receive Southland Tales, maybe it makes sense that a movie that creates an off-kilter but not-too-off version of reality doesn’t succeed. All this apocalypse talk has this reviewer wondering if we won’t either.


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