Under advisement from a chum I recently watched SOUTHLAND TALES. He said "I believe in a few years people will start to see the film for the genius it is". I'm not so sure about that. SOUTHLAND TALES is a mess, but WHAT a mess!
With his début film DONNIE DARKO, director Richard Kelly bent space and time to create an interesting and unusual sci-fi horror (that's what I'm calling it) that bordered on the surreal and turned Patrick Swayze into a deviant. With SOUTHLAND TALES, he crams so many genres into one film it tends up being none of them in particular. I do admire the fact he evidently cut loose and went "Nuts to this, I want to write an apocalyptic sci-fi drama with elements of romance, time/space travel and comedy in it. What's that you say? It'll never work? Bushwa! Let's see you say that once I get Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sean William Scott in it! Oh that's still not enough? Well howsabout I make JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE the narrator AND give him a central role? Yeah, NOW you're confused ya filthy mook."
The Rock appears to sporadically channel William Shatner, SMG swears like a trooper and has some of the smuttiest dialogue in the film, and Sean William Scott plays a welcome and restrained character from his usual loud/goofy/obnoxious schtick. I don't mind saying that Justin Timberlake is probably the best actor in the film, as you can tell he's clearly having fun and enjoying doing a few things his pop star image might not otherwise allow (the highlight of his performance is in a musical interlude in which he mimes along to The Killers 'All The Things I've Done', although this section itself is pretty rubbish).
There are certain points in SOUTHLAND TALES (the title refers to Texas, where a nuclear bomb explodes at the start of the film) where Kelly appears to be trying to out-Lynch David Lynch, but replacing the noir aspect with a sci-fi one. There's even a bit where Rebekah Del Rio sings an odd version of a famous song (as she did in Mullholland Drive). Suffice to say, it doesn't work - but not for want of trying.
If you're going to populate your film with weird characters, you need someone normal to anchor events, and although Kelly does this with government man Vaughn Smallhouse he's not a major role, is instead on the very fringe of events. He is also my favourite character in the film, purely because he's the only one asking the sensible questions and who actually seems to be aware that weird things are going on. Add to this list Will Sasso as Fortuni Balducci, who spends almost the entirety of the film with a bemused "Can you believe this shit?" expression on his face and it only adds to the confusion.
The actual story goes something like this:
An actor goes missing, then wakes up in the desert with amnesia. He ends up hooking up with a former porn star and they write a script. A man poses as his identical twin in order to frame the police/government for a (faked) double murder. This man has also amnesia. A group of scientists have created a new form of energy that could well be linked to an actual perpetual motion machine. Somehow the actor and other man are linked together. The new form of energy has some sort of link to an experiment involving time and space. The script starts to come true. Everyone gets really confused.
As the making-of on the DVD reveals, practically everyone involved with the film had no idea exactly what it was, with Sasso calling it a comedy, and Kelly himself constantly referring to it as a comedy. You don't have to laugh at comedy to find it funny but it certainly helps, and SOUTHLAND TALES isn't really an acquired taste in this respect - it just doesn't work. Maybe it is a satire on politics, and on how life imitates art imitates life (characters quote each other/say each others lines, not to mention the [stunt] casting) and that'd be fine, but chucking in an alternate future (well past now - the film's set in 2008) as a backdrop, and then some final act reveal about rifts in time and space, is like getting Heston Blumenthal to make you fish n chips. It might sound impressive, all the stuff he chucks in, but it probably won't taste quite as pleasant or satisfying as a £2 special from your local chippy.
Considering the film's ultimately supposed to be about the apocalypse, it's a bit of a damp squib as you get the distinct impression the most interesting stuff is happening the instant the film ends. The start of the film is also guilty of this to a degree as we're TOLD about World War 3, when you kinda feel like that would make a pretty interesting film. Maybe the three comics that came out before the film answer some of these questions, but I honestly can't be bothered to get them to find out. Leaving some important questions for another medium to answer leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Just like Heston's fish n chips.