'Southland Tales," Richard Kelly's funny, audacious, messy and feverishly inspired look at America and its discontents, opens with the very biggest of bangs. The place is Texas, the time is 2005, and laughing men, women and children are celebrating the Fourth of July when a mushroom cloud blooms in the sky, igniting World War III. Not long after the smoke clears, Justin Timberlake, playing an Iraq war veteran with a thing for quoting Revelation, intones in voice-over: "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with a bang."
The lines, borrowed from T.S. Eliot's post-World War I poem "The Hollow Men," reverberate through "Southland Tales," which satirically imagines a wartime landscape unsettlingly close to a modern pessimist's vision of the day after next. Kelly has purposely distorted Eliot's poem, which ends with the whimper, not the bang, and speaks to a ravaged Europe. Now the wasteland is America, where, in the wake of nuclear attack, the Bud Light still flows freely (par-tee!), though not the fossil fuel. Having reinstated the draft to stock its war fronts -- in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with Iran, Syria and North Korea -- America has gone into lockdown. Somewhere in Venice, Calif., the revolution tick, tick, ticks.
After the big-bang prologue, the story shifts to 2008, when on the eve of a presidential campaign competing interests are jockeying violently for power. Among the sprawling cast of unusual suspects are the "neo-Marxists," mostly middle-age hippie chicks swinging Tasers and heavy rhetoric; a Republican presidential candidate and his Lady Macbeth of a wife; and a gaggle of totally awesome porn stars in hot pants and lip gloss who preach their own brand of liberation theology on cable television. Skulking on the sidelines is a mystery man with a spit curl who claims to have found a solution to America's depleted reserves in something called Fluid Karma, which will light up the country by harnessing the ocean's power.
There's more stuffed in Kelly's crowded fun house, including the linchpin figure, Boxer Santaros, played with lilting delicacy by Dwayne Johnson. After having gone inexplicably missing, Boxer -- identified as an actor with ties to the Republican Party -- has re-emerged on the grid in Venice, amnesiac and nestled in the arms of an entrepreneurial porn star, Krysta Now, given dignity and melancholic soul by a lovely Sarah Michelle Gellar. Together, Boxer and Krysta (she's all about now, not later) have written an apocalyptic screenplay that they're trying to pitch amid the intrigue and noise. Everyone wants a part of Boxer, but all he wants to do is research his role, which he does by riding shotgun with a mysterious cop (Seann William Scott, terrific).
What is "Southland Tales"? It's a romp, for starters, a genre pastiche, a blast of conscience. It's also overly plotted and at once too long and too short. It took Stanley Kubrick 102 tidy minutes to blow the world to Kingdom Come in "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," one of Kelly's touchstones. (His other influences: "Kiss Me Deadly," "Double Indemnity," David Lynch, Fox News, comic books, video games, "Saturday Night Live," years spent living in Los Angeles.) By contrast, "Southland Tales" clocks in at 2 hours, 24 minutes.
It sounds padded, but I miss the 19 minutes shorn from it in the aftermath of its disastrous premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Neither disaster nor masterpiece, "Southland Tales" again confirms that Kelly, who made a startling feature debut with "Donnie Darko," is one of the bright lights of his filmmaking generation. He doesn't make it easy to love his new film, which turns and twists and at times threatens to disappear down the rabbit hole of his obsessions. Happily, it never does, which allows you to share in his unabashed joy in filmmaking as well as in his fury about the times.