Friday, November 6, 2009
A wonder stuck on one hit
Back in 2003, shortly after I first saw Donnie Darko, I was having a conversation about it with a friend. This was my second friend to show a slavish devotion to this one-of-a-kind film, the friend who introduced it to me being the first. Seeing that others were crazy about it as well helped deepen my appreciation of the cinematic discovery I'd just made.
The name of the director, Richard Kelly, came up, and I asked my friend what the deal was with him. Ordinary name, no previous credits that I was aware of. "I don't know," answered the friend, his voice rising at the end to indicate his own amazement. "He just came out of nowhere I guess."
And so I came to mythologize Richard Kelly as some kind of J.D. Salinger of filmmaking, a guy who had burst on the scene to present us this singular vision, then might just slink back into the shadows of seclusion. I cautiously dared to hope for an impressive follow-up to Donnie Darko, but I almost couldn't imagine Kelly producing anything else. It was like Donnie Darko was so mind-blowing that it could exist as the entirety of his career, and that would be enough. What else was there to say?
And maybe he should have stopped right there after all.
You see, Richard Kelly is as much a flesh-and-blood human being as the rest of us, and his subsequent career choices have each been painful reminders of that fact. The Box, his third directorial assignment, due out tomorrow, does not figure to change that.
But let's take things in chronological order.
1) Domino (2005, Tony Scott). The first time Kelly's name materialized in the credits after Donnie Darko was in this hyper-stylized assault on your senses, a truly vulgar creation designed to glamorize the life of Hollywood princess-turned-bounty hunter Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley). Tony Scott took his worst instincts and turned Kelly's script into a jittery, stroke-inducing strobe light of a movie, which fetishizes violence, cigarette smoking, and pop culture. I blame this turkey more on Scott than Kelly, but mostly because I have Kelly on a pedestal -- the bare bones of his script couldn't have been that good.
2) Southland Tales (2007, Richard Kelly). All the large-scale ideas that got smaller-scale execution in Donnie Darko get driven over the top here. A truly epic mess about a cross-section of truly idiotic characters in Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future, Southland Tales tackles nothing less than Big Brother, terrorism, nuclear holocaust, neo-Marxism, celebrity, alternative energy, drug abuse, the Iraq War, and time travel. Most bizarre is the cast of has-beens, featuring the likes of Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, John Laroquette, Wallace Shawn, Nora Dunn and Curtis Armstrong, with Seann William Scott, Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Mandy Moore serving as the supposed A-listers of the group. It's as bad as it sounds, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it occasionally crosses into the territory of "so bad it's good." Will probably be a cult film at some point, but not the way Donnie Darko is considered a cult film.
3) The Box (2009, Richard Kelly). As this movie has not come out yet, I am left only to speculate. But let's just say the ads have not inspired me with very much confidence. The scenario -- "if you press this button, you will be given $1 million, and someone you don't know will die" -- almost sounds chilling. But the ads have inadvertently echoed the terminology of the Saw franchise, as Frank Langella (missing the left half of his face) says the words "Make your choice," echoing the command spoken by Tobin Bell's Jigsaw numerous times throughout that series. What's more, outside of Langella, it's not a very heavyweight cast -- Cameron Diaz and James Marsden have their time and place, but a Richard Kelly mind-tripper doesn't seem to be one of them. In fact, the cast is one of the main elements that undermined Southland Tales, though that wouldn't have been good even with a slate of Oscar winners. To give a couple more first impressions: The footage looks grainy and washed out, and the poster is as generic as can possibly be, befitting an anonymous thriller from the 1980s more than a potential masterpiece from a supposed wunderkind.
4) Other projects. Kelly's name is often heard in connection with Knowing, the Nicolas Cage vehicle that came out earlier this year. He was once attached as director (The Crow's Alex Proyas eventually did the deed), and he is listed as a screenwriter on the film some places, but not others. The confusion is just as well for my current thesis, since I actually liked Knowing. Then there are a couple other films he's produced through his production company, called Darko Entertainment, including World's Greatest Dad and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. I liked the former and did not see the latter, but I thought the trailer for the latter looked absolutely terrible (a bachelor party gone horribly wrong -- ho hum). It's funny, in looking up Kelly's credits, I see he is also listed as an executive producer on a film I'm going to be seeing this afternoon, in an advanced screening, called Rogue's Gallery. My wife works for/with one of the other executive producers, which is how we're getting in.
Since there are really only three main films after Darko where Kelly's been credited with a significant contribution -- one of which has not even come out yet -- it may be both premature and unfair for me to go on record as disappointed in him. After all, The Box could just as easily give me those Darko chills again. I should know, from plenty of experience, that films are often much better or much worse than they appear in their ads.
So instead of specifically indicting Kelly, let me just say this: It ain't easy being a genius. You have to keep following up and following up and following up, and any future project that isn't viewed as improving on your body of work, inevitably detracts from it instead. Maybe Kelly will never again make anything nearly so good as Donnie Darko. Since I currently have the film ranked as my third-favorite of all time, I could hardly blame him for this.
Here's hoping that Richard Kelly can settle somewhere in the middle -- that he can stop monkeying around with bombastic, untranslatable visions, in a vein effort to duplicate Darko, and can just be satisfied making solidly crafted movies instead.
Before he was the director of Donnie Darko, Kelly was just a film student at USC, a guy with two short films to his credit. He was human like the rest of us, and can be so again.