When "Donnie Darko" sank without a trace after its theatrical release in October, 2001, writer-director Richard Kelly feared his (potential) career had gone down with it. Then, the movie became a cult phenomenon on DVD and Kelly, like his alliterative hero, was given a second chance.
The signs since then have not been enouraging: a screenplay for Tony Scott's "Domino," a film that graced many of last year's Ten Worst lists; and (far more disturbing) a "director's cut" of "Donnie Darko" that indicated Kelly didn't know what he'd done right the first time. All the best qualities of the film -- its teasing ambiguity, its creepy playfulness -- were nearly crushed in an attempt to laboriusly spell out an elaborate science-fiction/time travel mythology. What was once a tantalizing undercurrent was thus made literal and dull. More "explanation" of geeky but arbitrary "rules" simply reduced the movie's sense of possibility and imagination... and made it a lot less fun. If the "DD" director's cut had been the original version of the movie, it would never have piqued enough curiosity to have developed much of a cult following.
Now, the reviews from Cannes of Kelly's long-awaited and highly anticipated sophomore feature, "Southland Tales," suggest Kelly hasn't learned anything from his "Donnie Darko" director's cut experience. Most of them are devastating -- by which I mean they're at least as bad as the ones for "The Da Vinci Code," and worse than the ones for "X-Men: The Last Stand."
Roger Ebert: "The greatest disappointment so far this year... Running an unendurable 161 minutes, it’s an apocalyptic mess..."
Todd McCarthy, Variety: "this wannabe visionary epic may find cult believers among gullible undergrads... But the fiasco at hand will be evident to everyone else, making commercial prospects exceedingly dicey."
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: "The festival's real clunker so far has unfortunately come from Richard Kelly, the success of whose cult classic 'Donnie Darko' has emboldened him to make a completely addled sci-fi comedy thriller..."
Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com: "I might not care about the incomprehensible plot, larded with biblical quotations and unspecific intimations of doom, and I might be willing to accept that Kelly has some kind of Godardian pomo deconstructionist hoo-ha in mind, if I ever believed he were in control of his material. But I think back to the pitch-perfect suburban surrealism of 'Donnie Darko' and just feel sad. This is an overamped, lumpy, jumpy film that never establishes either its plot or its characters clearly, and the dialogue is often cringe-inducingly bad.
"Yes, there are moments of pure visual magic here, and the scope of imagination and ambition at work in 'Southland Tales' is everything you would expect. If Kelly recuts this, takes out all the nonsense and releases it as an experimental, almost wordless, nonnarrative film (at, say, 90 minutes) it might become a rare and beautiful thing. As it is now, it's about the biggest, ugliest mess I've ever seen."
Dave McCoy, MSN Movies: "I can't give you a proper review, because it's against my ethics. I don't review movies that I walk out on.... Instead, I can give you a brief sketch of what made me walk out of a film that I'd been excited about for five years. Kelly is his own worst enemy. Sophomore slump doesn't even begin to describe this accident."
Ray Bennett, Hollywood Reporter: "Deep into Richard Kelly's miasmic 160-minute fantasy 'Southland Tales,' an actor who used to call himself 'The Rock' places a gun at his temple and says, 'I could pull the trigger right now and this whole nightmare will be over,' and every impulse screams: 'Do it!'"
James Rocchi, Cinematical: "Sprawling, messy, willfully self-indulgent and incomprehensible, 'Southland Tales' is the biggest sophomore slump for a seemingly indie-filmmaker since Kevin Smith's 'Mallrats' -- and the scope of 'Southland Tales'' failed ambitions and vain pretensions make its failure all the more depressing. I'm sure Kelly felt that he was making a movie about something; along the line, though, it's pretty obvious that he forgot all about the basics of making a movie."
Mike D'Angelo, Nerve.com: "'This is a potential career killer, I suspect.... 'Hudson Hawk' -- a much better movie, I have to say -- [was]... the last time I can remember seeing so much strained pseudo-satirical whimsy in one motion picture."
Sadly, the phrase that seems to recur most frequently in all these reviews is, simply: "not funny."
On the equally uncomfortable but squirmier-about-it side, there's Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, who comes across like one of those old-timey, fretfully hedging pre-Scott/Dargis New York Times reviewers ("Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?") -- not quite sure what's going on, and too timid to articulate an opinion. Poor Wells puts himself through terrible contortions trying to put some kind of positive spin on the "Southland Tales" experience. He writes: "I liked portions of Kelly's film here and there (especially the musical numbers and the wild fantasy stuff that kicks in toward the end), but mostly it felt like a struggle and a muddle. I'm sorry to say this because I think Kelly is one of the best younger filmmakers around, but this is the kind of difficult film that only an audacious visionary could make....
"'Southland Tales' is absolutely not a movie for your average 55 year-old. I'm not saying all younger people will like it, but you can almost certainly scratch the boomers."
I don't know (or care) how old the apparently age-obsessed Wells is, but for some reason (and, honestly, I think it's just because he likes Kelly and doesn't want to hurt his feelings -- plus, he was supposed to go to a "Southland Tales" party later) he adopts the persona of a senile 97-year-old, vexed about not really understanding these feisty young whippersnappers of today, but god bless 'em, anyway, with their nutty space-age hormones and apocalyptic picture shows. Wells further rationalizes: "This is a crazy, no-holds-barred, go-for-it Richard Kelly film. And I think vigorously challenging mind-scrambling movies are good for the soul, even if you don't get everything about them." (Amen. But wait: Didn't Ruth Gordon say that in "Harold and Maude"?) The question remains: What are some of the holds that Kelly does not bar? What's the "it" that he goes for? Unfortunately, Wells doesn't hazard a guess.
Yeah, looks like what we've got here is yet another typically "crazy, no-holds-barred, go-for-it" Richard Kelly Film. The, uh, second one. (Or, after the "DD" director's cut, maybe "Southland Tales" is Kelly's "2 1/2.") I'm afraid that Wells' unctuous and unconvincing comments remind me somewhat of Martin Short's (far more assured) agent in Christopher Guest's "The Big Picture," telling a young filmmaker (Kevin Bacon): "I don't know you. I don't know your work. But I think you are a genius. And I am never wrong about that."
Now, hardly anybody tries to make a bad movie (unless, like Alan Parker or Oliver Stone, they simply don't know -- or care about -- the difference). I would like Kelly and "Southland Tales" to succeed, against all odds. After all, I'm a big fan of the original version of "Donnie Darko," and have written about it extensively. I mentioned in that piece that I got the sense from the director's commentary on the original disc that Kelly had made a much better film than he seemed to know he'd made -- in fact, quite a different one than he thought he'd made.
So, I do hope he can cut a good movie out of "Southland Tales," and that the film can get an American distributor, but things don't look promising. Most discouraging: On the "Director's Cut" DVD and in "Southland Tales," Kelly keeps company with Kevin Smith, which pretty much marks certain death for any aspirations toward cinematic integrity or ambition (or comedy). And I am never wrong about that.
P.S. Another bad omen: This excerpt from Wells' frat-boy interview with Kelly last year, in which he tries to create some kind of creepily "intimate" masculine bonding/branding image, reminsicent of a Photoplay magazine profile of Rock Hudson circa the 1950s:
OK, I wish I hadn't read that. Glad to share it with you, though! Maybe it will help you get more dates with women. Or, at least, sorority girls.
Kelly might be lonely and a bit of a dweeb at heart (like all writers...don't get him started on women). He talks like a grounded adult and seems to know about focus and discipline. But ask him a question and he digresses and meanders. (You have to keep going back and ask it repeatedly -- he'll eventually cough up an answer.)
Becoming famous "has certainly helped me get more dates with women," he comments. "All the sorority girls at USC thought I was interesting but kind of dark and weird. They were more into the guys from Orange County who were going to be stockbrokers. I got made fun of a lot for being a cinema student, and after a while it started to get to me. I started to doubt myself, and writing 'Darko' was my response to that self-doubt."