Here it is, at last: the worst film of the year. Don’t worry, though — smart-aleck apologists (including certain senior NY-based critics who should know better) will inevitably praise Southland Tales as “so off-the-wall it’s subversive,” but Richard Kelly’s sophomore film is really nothing but a train wreck. Donnie Darko, Kelly’s decent but over-hyped debut (“your fat 14 year old sisters favorite ‘weird’ movie [sic],” as one IMDb user put it), at least showed promise; Southland Tales is an embarrassment. It’s the most obnoxious of films — shrill, self-satisfied and pretentious, with just enough pseudo-Warholian trashiness to wriggle out of responsibility for failing its large scope and themes.
Set during the 2008 presidential race as America responds to a nuclear attack with a multi-front war, Southland Tales pits an evil (could it be otherwise?) Republican candidate (Holmes Osborne) against a contingent of horribly directed B-celebs playing crossover porn stars (Sarah Michelle Geller), fourth-dimension traveling amnesiac actors (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), messianic police officer twins (Seann William Scott) and underground neo-Marxists (various SNL vets) with the apocalypse itself at stake. A complete narrative mess, Southland Tales plays like a sloppy two-and-a-half-hour riff (ostensibly salvaged from a longer cut derided at Cannes) on the Patrick Swayze scenes from Darko — cheap, broad satire on the Iraq War, global warming, oil dependency, the Patriot Act and media saturation, with the atmospherics that made the first film so evocative replaced by empty references to T.S. Eliot, Philip K. Dick and the Book of Revelations. Kelly has wildly miscalculated his film’s irreverence. American culture having already become a self-parodic cacophony, indulgent romps like Southland no longer spoof our end times. They practically enable them.