“Donnie Darko” is easily everyone’s favorite movie that no one understands. Is it a superhero tale? A dream? Moments re-lived before a sudden death? Audiences and fans go round and round with Richard Kelly’s debut feature, and it has become a cult phenomenon. So much so that even the slightest word of Kelly’s follow-up “Southland Tales” had people like myself giddy with anticipation. Then, you know, I saw the film and… this is how the review starts, not with overwhelming praise, but confused disappointment.
I really, truly want to write you a synopsis paragraph but it’d be more like a novel if I hit on every character, motivation and situation, so I’ll instead say that the basic idea behind the film is that the Book of Revelations is going to come to pass in 2008 Los Angeles, and the film shows all the events that lead up to the final days. Mega-celebrity actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), scarred soldier Abilene (Justin Timberlake) and twins Roland and Ronald Tavener (Seann William Scott) all have pivotal roles in the End of Days, as do about fifty other characters. It’s a cool idea, but it fails at the foot of the mountain of ambition.
From the opening home video of a nuclear warhead going off in Texas (a sequence that is eerily reminiscent of the “Cloverfield” teaser, but not done quite as well), to the crash-course in the history of the world post-nuke, the film bombards you with imagery and information, all to the tune of a Justin Timberlake voiceover and… it’s too much. By the time I was ten minutes into the film, my brain had checked out due to exhaustion. I’m not sure if it was always Kelly’s intention to assault the audience with so much exposition, or if it was a re-edit note he may’ve taken after the poor reception at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, but the film is at its best when it just lets sequences play out while the actors do their jobs without voiceover context. Unfortunately those moments of the film whereupon the audience is allowed to interpret for themselves without Timberlake’s “this is this, and that means this” are too few and far between.
Lest I not offer some praise, the acting in the film is pretty solid. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson steals every scene he’s in, Jon Lovitz has an inspired role and Wallace Shawn plays his most diminutively evil role since the Sicilian in “The Princess Bride.” Hell, even Justin Timberlake does a good job. Still, they’re lost performances in a mess of a story.
I know all the “Donnie Darko” fans are going to go see this, and again they’re going to be given a film to think about long after it’s over (I came up with my interpretation of events as the film went along and… well, it’s not quite Bobby in the shower in the “Dallas” season eight finale, but it’s equally as meta) but for me the film is just too much exposition, too long, too convoluted, too many characters and ultimately a huge disappointment.