Dir. Richard Kelly
(R) ½★

Serpentine: “Two identical souls walking the face of the Earth, co-existing in the same domain of chaos. What will happen if they shake hands?”

Boxer Santaros: “The fourth dimension will collapse upon itself, you stupid bitch!”

Richard Kelly. Oh Richard Kelly. He made a really interesting movie in 2001 called Donnie Darko. It was an intriguing head-trip of a movie, though if you listen to Kelly’s explanation of it on the DVD commentary, it turns out to be quite a stupid movie. I can’t remember when I’ve been as deflated by a film as when I listened to Kelly matter-of-factly deconstruct his moving character study and put it back together as a superhero yarn about repairing the space-time continuum. Think about his analysis for too long and it comes apart like tissue paper.

Southland Tales is what happens when that same creative mind is given free rein with more money (a still-modest $17 million, compared to the $6 million Darko). It’s a fiasco. It’s a crock. It achieves a kind of greatness by the sheer force of its awfulness. It reveals a filmmaker with little control of his own impulses and an even more tenuous grasp of character, plot, logic, theme, continuity, dialogue. There’s a feeling that words don’t connect with other words, that scenes don’t connect to other scenes, that actors don’t connect to their co-stars; they’d have to guess at how to play their characters at any given moment, because none of their lines have any reference point in reality. (The Rock takes to twiddling his fingers, apropos of nothing.)

And what a cast of actors to assemble for such a folly! I had to pause each time I recognized the face of an actor who doesn’t look like he belongs anywhere near this movie. The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Seann William Scott I knew about already. But then there’s Jon Lovitz. And Nora Dunn. And Wallace Shawn. John Larroquette. Bai Ling. Cheri Oteri. Amy Poehler. Wood Harris. Miranda Richardson. Mandy Moore. Christopher Lambert. Will Sasso. Kevin Smith!! The music is by Moby, and the narrator is Justin Timberlake. I’ll repeat that: The narrator is Justin Timberlake. He has a drug-induced hallucination where he lip-synchs to the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.” Apropos of nothing.

But I’m getting off track — wait, there is no track.

With such an unlikely and eclectic ensemble, you could do something great. Really great. Extraordinary. Kelly tries to. Oh, how he tries! This is the story he put them in: After the United States suffers a nuclear assault, World War III begins. The Republicans trounce on our civil rights; they expand the PATRIOT Act and create a Big Brother-esque watchdog organization called USIDent. Opposing them are left-wing revolutionaries called Neo-Marxists. Sound like an intriguing premise for a political satire? You’re right, it is, but keep reading.

Actor Boxer Santaros (The Rock) is married to the daughter (Moore) of a vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 election. He loses his memory and gets entangled with a porn star (Gellar) who has cut an album called “Teen Horniness is Not a Crime.” They co-author a screenplay that foretells the apocalypse. Wait — I’m getting ahead of myself … or behind myself, or maybe under myself. There’s a rift in the space-time continuum. And there’s an Iraq vet (Scott) who has a twin brother, or they may be the same person. Something happened in Fallujah between him and a guy named Pilot Abilene (Timberlake), who deals drugs. And there’s a zeppelin, and a double-murder conspiracy, and two Hummers having sex with each other. And we’re assured that, and I quote, “pimps don’t commit suicide.”

I’m thisclose to recommending this film, because you’d have to see it to believe that it exists, that rational adults would commit time and money to it, that a selection committee thought it belonged at the Cannes Film Festival. Not long ago, I saw and loathed Eraserhead, the first film by frequently brilliant weirdo auteur David Lynch, which features creepy worm creatures, an alien baby, and a woman in a radiator with a deformed face — no humping Hummers, but maybe that’s in the director’s cut. If you think two identical souls are bad news, I wonder what would happen if he and Kelly ever shook hands.