Once upon a time, writer-director Richard Kelly gave us the fine and sensitive Donnie Darko , a work that succeeded not only by virtue of Jake Gyllenhaal's bravura turn in the title role, but because Kelly created believable, empathetic characters, no small accomplishment in a sci-fi thriller. What's more, Kelly managed to build eeriness and foreboding with minimal violence. Not so in Southland Tales , his sophomore (and sophomoric) effort, a movie that places Kelly squarely in the pantheon—the pantheon of Ed Wood.

There are killings aplenty in Kelly's vision of global apocalypse, as it detonates in and around Hermosa Beach, Calif., but we neither know nor care about the ciphers getting blown away, so the blood-spattered corpses sprawled onscreen mean nothing. A double agent shot to death falls backward onto a toilet seat; his arms splay in a Christ pose. The crucifixion's gone to shit, our filmmaker subtly suggests, and with it all possibility of redemption in an age when the religious right totes machine guns. (At least, I assume that's why Miranda Richardson, as a Patriot Act surveillance maven issuing orders to mow down neo-Marxists, appears so heavily rouged she could pass for Tammy Faye Bakker.)

Southland' s multiple plots and subplots won't be alien terrain to anyone versed in Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick or David Lynch; the alternate universe conjured here, however, is even less coherent than theirs. Kelly intends his end-of-the-world doom to have satiric underpinnings, except the lines that are supposed to be funny fall flatter than flapjacks: "Proposition 69—to [porn star] Krysta Now, that number had one meaning and one meaning only."

The movie reaches its nadir in a sequence as overtly racist as it is disgusting. It involves the mutilation of Japan's prime minister. We're meant to get off on his anguished screams; it's like a porno-violent variation on a 1960s Jerry Lewis racial impersonation. The cheapness of Kelly's sensibility emerges loud and clear: He's made a film about how reprehensible Republicans are with their endless wars, yet he tries to score laughs from dismemberment. Elsewhere, bleached blond beach bums contentedly projectile-vomit on one another. And mad scientist Wallace Shawn, wearing white makeup and auburn curls to remind us of Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet , goes toe-to-toe opposite Mandy Moore (as a GOP senator's daughter) in the one scene that almost works, a thunder-and-lightning confrontation that speaks to the live-action comic-strip Kelly evidently wants—you can all but see the bubbles over the actors' heads. R.


Southland Tales opens Friday at Fox Tower.