Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Donnie Darko (and a little bit of Southland Tales)

It's funny how a little restraint and a bit of grounding can make the difference between a fantastic cult success and something so utterly insane that nobody could really get behind it. Take Donnie Darko, for instance, and the second film its writer/director made, Southland Tales. I saw Southland first, and it was so completely out there and gleefully nuts that I couldn't help but be in awe of it. Of course, I have a high tolerance for amusing and creative lunacy, so I liked it, but I'm not going to pretend that the narrative was even remotely sensical.

Donnie Darko, however, shares a lot with Southland Tales, and people love it. Hell, even I quite like it, and it's not because of my love of the crazy. The interesting thing is, they both share stories which place a great deal of emphasis on time travel, time loops, and the end of the world. Hell, they even have strange song and dance sequences for some reason. The difference is, of course, that the world of Donnie Darko is inhabited by recognizably human characters, whereas Southland is narrated by Justin Timberlake in a gun turret, and is focused on a particularly jittery version of The Rock.

Take the titular character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and his freaky eyebrows. He's a fairly typical troubled kid, a character that a huge segment of the population can probably relate to. He's misunderstood, just like they are! He's pretty obviously smarter than most of the people around him, just like they are! He is clearly special and important, just like they are! He speaks with a gigantic imaginary bunny rabbit who tells him to burn things, just like they do! I think the typical trouble kid is a huge part of the cult appeal, since he is a fairly recognizable character, and just like every misunderstood kid in the world to some degree.

Just being a troubled teen might endear him to young audiences, but the real appeal is that most of the other characters are pretty typical as well. His parents, played by Holmes Osborne and President of the Twelve Colonies Laura Roslin, aren't made out to be villains or the reason why he's so messed up. They're just normal parents, trying their best and clearly in love with each other. I've seen a few cases of parents being portrayed as some sort of strange evil that's stopping the kids from being themselves, but the Darkos could be any happily married couple. Yeah, their son isn't perfect, but nobody his age is, and they're at least trying.

His sisters (one of whom is played by Jake's real sister Maggie Gyllenhaal) are normal too, in fact, the entire family is quite normal. Maybe not perfect, but quite natural and it's easy to see elements of any family in there. The characters would probably work in any story, but here we get a tale filled with strange happenings, imaginary rabbits and all manner of inexplicable events. The normality of the family allows the abnormal to be that much more compelling.

And that reality is why Donnie Darko is a well regarded movie, while Southland Tales is not. Honestly, their stories are several midgets away from being the same, but Donnie Darko combines the believable with the unbelievable, the sane with the insane, and the normal with the nutty. By abandoning the more banal, Southland divorces itself from reality and is much harder to see the appeal of. It's nice to see that good characters really make all the difference.

Just so everyone knows, updates are coming Tuesdays and FRIDAYS now, because after a few months I found that Thursday was just too close to Tuesday, making the second entry a mad rush more often than not, and then it's a long wait until the next one. If I don't like Fridays I might switch it again, but it should be fine for now. I had originally planned on doing Tuesday and Thursday because NOBODY updates on those days. I sort of understand why that is now.

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