The main problem with Mister Lonely, the third feature film by writer/director Harmony Korine, is one that certainly didn’t plague either of his first two efforts (1997’s Gummo and 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy). Simply put, the film is far too normal. And this despite it being concerned with a group of celebrity impersonators living communally in the Scottish highlands, raising sheep and putting on plays, while a group of Panamanian nuns halfway around the world jump from airplanes (sans parachute) at the insistence of a suspiciously exuberant priest, played with characteristic, um, insanity by the perpetually unhinged Werner Herzog. (I mean I love the guy, but come on – he’s clearly mad.) Not the plot of your typical mainstream film, it’s true, but Mr. Korine has never been typical, and his films are far from mainstream.
And yet Mister Lonely feels like an exercise in compromise. One can almost see the shoehorn onscreen as Korine tries to cram his usual shotgun blast of energy (scattered, powerful, and ultimately messy) into a linear (or at least parallel) structure, full of half-realized characters and rampant sentimentality (bordering on bathos). What made Gummo and Julien work was not any dramatic talent on the part of Korine; what made them work was Korine himself. To those passionate few who love those films (and they do exist, although far outnumbered by those who loathe them), the excitement had nothing to do with storyline or character and everything to do with Korine's worldview. Love him or hate him, the man is certainly unique in his artistic vision, and to see Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy is to see the world through Harmony Korine’s eyes, to see what he finds interesting, funny, beautiful, or sad. There is a feeling one gets when watching those films, a feeling impossible to describe, but one that is wholly new, wholly unique, at times disturbing but always at the very least provocative, in the best sense of that overused word.
The unfortunate thing about Mister Lonely is how inadequate it is at translating Korine’s singular vision to the screen. It’s just too damn normal. And I wanted to like this movie; I really did. I applaud Korine’s message here – the film passionately champions the outsider, the dreamer, the one who simply doesn’t fit, who wishes to be someone else, someone special – Michael Jackson perhaps, or Marilyn Monroe, or Abe Lincoln. And the image of the nun falling through the sky on a bicycle is simply wonderful. But these two ideas, these two (rather transparent) metaphors, are not powerful enough to sustain what amounts to a rather trite story.
Diego Luna stars as a Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris where he meets (the ever-game) Samantha Morton, who “lives as” Marilyn Monroe. She invites him to join her commune in the highlands of Scotland, where she lives with her Charlie Chaplin husband (a skuzzy Denis Lavant) and her Shirley Temple daughter (cute-as-a-button Esme Creed-Miles) along with the Queen of England, Sammy Davis Jr., a foul-mouthed Abe Lincoln, The Three Stooges, a Blonde Ambition-era Madonna, among others (including, for some reason, Little Red Riding Hood, played by Korine’s sister Rachel). There is some business about dying sheep and a variety show that they put on, but the main storyline involves the growing attraction between Michael and Marilyn and the abuse she suffers at the hands of a very Hitlerian Chaplin.
One would think that Korine chose the various different celebrities due to the unique significance they each have in the public imagination – the problem being that once the characters are shown on screen, all we see are these particular impersonators and not the famous personages they are supposed to represent. Whatever archetypes Korine was hoping to play around with (having Lincoln be an asshole, seeing Buckwheat bathe the Pope) are less effective when seen on film than they would have been in a prose story, for example. Once the image has been frozen on film, it simply does not have the intended effect. The ideas are there, but the form in which Korine chooses to transmit his vision has only served to sap it of its strength. It died somewhere between his mind and the projection booth.
The acting is fine, especially Morton, who to my knowledge has never been anything less than very good, and of course Herzog is Herzog. And the cinematography by Marcel Zyskind was suitably sparkling, as was the score by Jason Spaceman and The Sun City Girls. But I believe that Mister Lonely will be seen as a transitional film in Harmony Korine’s career, somewhere between the insane punk rock of his first two movies and the presumably more middle-of-the-road direction he is traveling in now. I, for one, will be interested to see where he goes.