Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" isn't just a movie. It's an apocalyptic piñata that's been bazooka-ed open. The ideas are all fallen post-apocalyptic junk and treasure strewn about the ground, left for us to pick up and keep or toss like megaplex scavengers. Kelly, whose previous movie was "Donnie Darko," doesn't make it easy. The film is a fiasco whose B-side is a kind of visionary masterpiece (one being utterly, unfortunately inseparable from the other) that heaves about a dozen balls in the air nearly simultaneously and tries to levitate them all. It drops a few. He drops a few.
The year is 2008, and a presidential election is in the offing, three years after a lot of Texas was hit with a nuclear bomb. Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and Afghanistan pose a single mega-threat to the United States. The military draft has been reinstated, and the Patriot Act has mutated into an actual government agency called US-IDENT, which blissfully spies on us and censors Internet access. Miranda Richardson plays the head of the National Security Agency - she frequently sits in a big white control room and dresses like something out of Anne Rice.
Oh, yes: The planet is almost out of gas, too - biblically and from the standpoint of natural resources. So some daffy German scientists - represented by Wallace Shawn, who together with Beth Grant, Curtis Armstrong, and Zelda Rubenstein, as scientific kooks, seem like an old-old new wave band - have solved our energy crises with a perpetual motion machine powered by ocean currents. (It's ripped a hole in the fourth dimension, but otherwise it works.)
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), an action star with ties to the Republican Party (his father-in-law is a candidate for the White House), has disappeared in the desert and emerges with no memory of who he is. And Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the relapsed porn star with the topical chat show and hit single ("Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime"), has conscripted Boxer into a plot with neo-Marxist revolutionaries. The Marxists have kidnapped a cop and are forcing him to impersonate his revolutionary twin, both of whom are played by Seann William Scott.
I forgot to mention that Justin Timberlake, playing a disfigured Iraq war veteran, dolorously narrates the entire film. He sits at one of the turrets that overlook the city and gets a musical number. If you've been dying to see the man who brought sexy back strut around a game arcade lip-synching The Killer's "All These Things That I've Done" ("I've got soul/ But I'm not a soldier"), the wait is over.
Interestingly, "Southland Tales" arrives at the intersection of two other films playing now: Brian De Palma's Iraq-war meta-movie "Redacted" and rerelease of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner." As De Palma does, Kelly wants to synthesize every strain of media and culture (porn, politics, the Internet, the music video) into a single furious object. (Kelly is more successful.) And like Scott's appropriation of Philip K. Dick, Kelly removes us from the present as we know it and plunges us down a rabbit hole. "Southland Tales" is a postwar action comedy whose climax is complete science fiction (most of the last act happens aboard a zeppelin). Of course, Kelly's vision of future shock feels like highly medicated post-traumatic stress. The whole film is this close to completely freaking out. But for some reason Kelly operates at a subdued pitch - the film actually feels overmedicated, drugged, like Paddy Chayefsky writing in slow motion.
If the movie is brilliant in the hypothetical and intellectual ether, it's crippled on the ground - very little of it really pops. "Southland Tales" is a farce that isn't funny, an action movie with no appreciable action, full of actors who don't quite act (Mandy Moore, John Laroquette, among many others are here, too). There's a moment in which Seann William Scott's reflection in a mirror doesn't synch with the man standing before it. The whole movie feels just as surreally delayed.
A not-insignificant portion of the cast are "Saturday Night Live" alums (Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, and Amy Poehler), and they're all playing revolutionaries. Kelly seems to be using them to make a point about comedy or comedians as types of insurgents, the people (some of the people) who'll strike out against what seems absurdly wrong in the culture or the world at a given moment. It's an idea that doesn't bear fruit, since he hasn't given them more to perform than variations of righteous indignation. But he's going for something greater than a mere Hollywood position paper.
Kelly is as much the bad-dream weaver David Lynch is. Like, say, "Mullholland Drive," "Southland Tales" feels like a nightmare pumped with laughing gas and dunked in formaldehyde. But he's not yet supple enough an artist to twist his sense of doom into a beautifully untangleable knot. "Southland Tales" is war-torn, diseased, pathologically unfocused, maybe schizophrenic, fanatical, cynical, depressed, exhausting, and bloated with no end in sight. Still the worried intelligence guiding it is never in doubt. Even if the world Kelly's concocted always seems screamingly incoherent, you have to hand it to him. He's made a movie of our messy times that's too ambitious to settle for merely capturing the mess. It actually is the mess.