Trying to summarize the plot of "Southland Tales" is a bit like explaining string theory to your dog: More likely than not, you'll be met with a blank stare. Attempting to explain the story-behind-the-story of the upcoming flick, meanwhile, is more comparable to filing the proper forms at the DMV: No matter how you do it, you're still likely to end up with a headache.
So, for simplicity's sake, here are a few basic facts: The movie stars a ridiculous list of actors including Sarah Michelle Gellar, the Rock, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, Seann William Scott and a dozen other recognizable names. It is Richard Kelly's follow-up to 2001's "Donnie Darko," one of the boldest debut films from a writer/director in recent memory. And, in a weird way, the first third of the movie is already out there for you to enjoy.
" 'Southland Tales' is basically a science-fiction fantasy about the near future," the 31-year-old auteur recently explained. "It's about what would happen to our country, potentially, if we were hit with another major terrorist attack. And it's trying to use comedy to project a political fantasy in the near future. [The film is] trying to engage young people to talk about alternative fuel, homeland security, the Patriot Act, foreign policy, the tabloid culture and a lot of other important issues."
In short, this ain't no "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties." Kelly compares his vision to that of complex films like "Brazil" and "Dr. Strangelove" and has concocted a bizarre mix of deadpan comedy, apocalyptic politicizing and musical numbers. Not surprisingly, he suffered a long and arduous road getting his movie made in a town known for celebrating the one-line synopsis.
"The Rock plays Boxer Santaros, a movie star stricken with amnesia," Kelly said. "Seann William Scott plays twins who are also mysteriously stricken with amnesia, and he finds himself with a psychic connection to this movie star. They both awaken in the Nevada desert. They're involved in this massive conspiracy involving a lot of characters, and one of the most pivotal is Krysta Now, a porn star played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. She is the femme fatale and the mysterious broker of this massive conspiracy involving an alternative-fuel corporation [and] a senator running for vice president."
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When Kelly shot the film more than a year ago, he encountered plenty of the problems that plague independently financed films. But landing big names wasn't one of them, thanks to his post-"Darko" buzz and a willingness to allow his actors to stretch. "We have Justin Timberlake in the film, playing a disfigured Iraq war veteran, and he's the heart and soul of it," Kelly said of the singer, who was eager to get past his pretty-boy image. "[Timberlake is] this doomsday prophet, and he's our narrator. And Mandy Moore plays the spoiled-brat daughter of a Texas senator. You see a lot of these actors taking their image and shaking it up, showing different parts of themselves. It's exciting to see them in roles you wouldn't expect."
But when, exactly, will we see these performances? It's a question that even Kelly can't answer. In May, a rambling, 160-minute cut debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and was received with the kinds of walkouts and bad reviews that could make a grown man cry.
"We made this movie for the people who loved 'Donnie Darko,' " Kelly insisted, downplaying the French response. "For people who read 'The Onion,' watch 'South Park' and listen to Green Day — very much the MTV audience. The fact that this film got [into Cannes] is a huge honor, and it is a statement that the film has something to say."
Sony Pictures would seem to agree, as it recently purchased the rights to the film and currently has Kelly slaving away on a brand-new, substantially shortened cut. "We're still finishing the film, and we'll be done with it in a couple of months," Kelly said. "I think at that point Sony [will decide] exactly when and how to release it."
In the meantime, however, Kelly and another cult figure, writer/director Kevin Smith, have concocted a unique way to simultaneously preserve the edited plot points and build anticipation. "I went to Kevin and pitched it to him," the "Southland" helmer said of the new graphic-novel series bearing the same name. "It's definitely an experiment, but we're excited."
The first graphic novel, "Two Roads Diverge," which introduced the film's major characters, was released this summer. The second, "Fingerprints," hit stores a few weeks ago.
"The film was always divided into three chapters, and as we got into it I started to get frustrated because I was like, 'Man, there is so much more I want to tell,' " said Kelly, who will soon release the third comic book with Smith, who also acts in the flick. "I started designing a back story as a way of figuring the story out in my own terms, and I thought, 'Well, let's just cross media and create chapters one, two and three as graphic novels and the film will be chapters four, five and six.' "
Once again, Kelly is going out on a limb with an idea that many in Hollywood might not understand. But it's rare to see a filmmaker give his audience credit for being smart enough to keep up.
"[We're] hoping people excited about the film will start reading the books and getting an awareness for the characters in the story, and then there will be a cliffhanger that will end in the movie theater," he explained. "We're hoping it might change the way people go see a film, in the sense that you'll already know the characters when you walk into the theater."
Maybe the French just didn't understand "Southland Tales" — or maybe, as some critics insist, none of us ever will. But good luck finding anybody who fully understood Kelly's debut the first time they saw it yet didn't grow to love its complexity after repeat viewings.
"It's like in 'Donnie Darko,' when she says, 'You're weird' and he says, 'I'm sorry,' and then she says, 'No, that was a compliment,' " Kelly grinned. "Everyone's weird, everyone's confused, everyone's screwed up in the head [in my audience]. I'm happy to be a part of it."
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