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Incoherent ‘Southland Tales’ will leave you cold

With boundless ambition far exceeding his ability to tell a coherent story, Kelly manages only an artistic apocalypse.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Southland Tales” writer-director Richard Kelly set out to tell a grand comic adventure about an apocalypse close at hand. With boundless ambition far exceeding his ability to tell a coherent story, Kelly manages only an artistic apocalypse.

Irksomely self-important, deliberately cryptic and cluttered, “Southland Tales” may strain the patience even of the cult crowd that embraced Kelly’s first film, “Donnie Darko,” a cinematic riddle that looks positively mainstream next to this fiasco.

There are clever moments here and there. But taken as a whole, you’re left wondering if the eclectic cast — which includes Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson,” Seann William Scott, Mandy Moore and Justin Timberlake — had any clue what the story was about.

Kelly began writing “Southland Tales” in 2001, envisioning a sci-fi black comedy about the end of creation that unfolds over the Fourth of July in 2008.

It took him so long that real time nearly caught up with his alternate future, making its silly trappings and the cataclysmic events leading up to it that much harder to swallow.

Kelly chopped 19 minutes from the version that disastrously premiered to scornful reviews at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. The movie has been gussied up with some better visual effects, particularly in what’s meant to be the big climax involving a “mega-zeppelin” and a levitating ice-cream truck over downtown Los Angeles.

Some of the images are impressive, but the effort is entirely in service of an incomprehensible story told with the unchecked pretensions of a creative-writing grad student who’s taken out the world’s biggest college loan.

Whatever internal logic the story needs never made it out of Kelly’s head. He doesn’t even bother to start at the beginning, instead presenting the movie as the fourth, fifth and sixth chapters of a six-part saga as George Lucas did with the original “Star Wars” trilogy. (Parts one, two and three of “Southland Tales” come in a graphic novel Kelly published, in case you’re interested.)

In his post-Cannes version, Kelly added a prologue to “Southland Tales” that better explains, though not by much, what came before.

The Fourth of July in 2005 brought terrorist nuclear explosions to Texas, and in the three years after, America has become a paranoid police state with trigger-happy guards everywhere, Orwellian surveillance and endless variations of squabbling underground factions.

The movie rambles pointlessly from situation to situation and character to character, the players including an amnesiac action star (Johnson), a porn queen (Gellar), a cop (Scott) with a mysterious twin brother and a soldier (Timberlake) disfigured by some vaguely referenced tragedy in Fallujah.

Along with Moore, other key cast members include Wallace Shawn, Miranda Richardson, Bai Ling, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri and Kelly’s buddy Kevin Smith.

People run around the L.A. area and carom off one another like billiard balls as all existence is threatened by the confluence of a new power source called fluid karma, a time-travel experiment and a party aboard a gaudy airship on its maiden voyage.

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When he’s done with a character, Kelly’s solution generally is to have someone else open fire on them.

As another cop, Lovitz follows an unexpected act of gunplay by quietly muttering “Flow my tears,” which has no context or meaning other than to show Kelly’s fellow Philip K. Dick fans that he has read, or at least heard of, the sci-fi author’s novel “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.”

Given the list of 10 producers and executive producers on the movie, someone, somewhere along the line, should have had the sense and courage to tell Kelly that he was spending their money on a story for the people in the real world, not the people in his head.