Harmony Korine is bat-shit insane. To use the charitable, art-world-approved term, he’s “eccentric.” Now, this character assessment is based not on personal observation, but on careful consumption of his cinematic work. From the Larry Clark-directed opuses Kids and Ken Park (both of which Korine wrote) to his full-on writing/directing efforts Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, Korine has demonstrated a singular talent that has inspired some to call him the freshest voice in modern indie cinema and others to label him one seriously messed-up young dude.
Kids and Ken Park are accessible enough films, if you like stories about teenagers doing drugs, having sex and sitting around a lot. A whole lot. Without the guiding hand of Larry Clark, however, Korine’s writing/directing projects have degenerated into self-indulgent Diane Arbus-style chronicles of weirdoes, losers and possible schizophrenics. His most recent drama (or comedy--I can’t really tell) is the puzzling freakshow Mister Lonely.
Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) stars as an obsessive Michael Jackson impersonator living in France. One day, he runs into a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (played by Brit Samantha Morton of Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report and In America). She invites him to come live in a commune in Scotland run by her husband, Charlie Chaplin. Intrigued by the beguilingly sweet Marilyn, Michael heads off to the Scottish highlands where he finds a tight-knit community of celebrity impersonators living on a farm full of llamas. There, Madonna, Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley Temple, James Dean and the Pope can all live out their crazy dreams in a place where “everybody is famous and nobody ever ages.”
It’s an interesting enough setting, but Korine doesn’t do much with it. The Three Stooges ride around on a tractor. Buckwheat rambles on for extended periods about his love of chickens. Michael Jackson starts to develop vague romantic feelings for Marilyn Monroe, which kinda ticks off Charlie Chaplin--but kinda not. At one point, the commune’s sheep get sick. In the end, everybody puts on a show. Abraham Lincoln recites the Gettysburg Address while spinning a basketball on his finger.
Occasionally, the film cuts away to the story of a South American nun who falls out of an airplane, but lives. Obsessive German director Werner Herzog plays a priest. There are several lovely slo-mo shots of nuns playing imaginary volleyball in the rain. What this has to do with celebrity impersonators is never explained. The lunatics have definitely taken over the asylum with this film. It’s just hard to tell if the revolution took place in front of the camera or behind it.
The frustrating thing about Mister Lonely is that it’s actually an excellent piece of filmmaking. Crummy film, but excellent piece of filmmaking. There are moments of genuine wonder and beauty here: Pick though the dust and you’ll find some scattered diamonds. The casting is deranged-yet-inspired. (Is that really ex-Rolling Stones bed-hopper Anita Pallenberg as Queen Elizabeth?) Herzog’s big scene haranguing a random Panamanian guy over his sins is mesmerizing at the very least. (Is it acting, improvisation or some Borat-style prank?) The sequence in which the blue-habited nun plummets from the single-engine plane is a triumph of arresting cinematography and sound design. (But what the crap does it signify?)
Luna’s opening narration suggests a story about what it’s like “to be someone else ... to be less ordinary,” but Korine’s cocktail napkin note of a script never bothers to develop the concept. Themes of innocence, internal identity, pop cultural hegemony and self-delusion are lost in a slow-moving slideshow of oddball tableaux vivants. Why, look--it’s Buckwheat. Giving the Pope a bath. In the middle of a field of wildflowers. ... Oh-kaaaay.
If there are still lingering members of the Harmony Korine cult (it has been nine years since Julien Donkey-Boy, after all), there’s a chance Mister Lonely will find a small but receptive audience who will grok (or pretend to grok, anyway) what the hell the filmmaker is doing. Mostly, he’s trying to follow in the footsteps of rebellious weirdoes like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Dusan Makavejev, David Lynch, Crispin Glover and Vincent Gallo. So far, he’s only partially succeeding.