Mister Lonely, directed by Harmony Korine (who previously wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark's Kids), starts out with a great idea: a Michael Jackson impersonator meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who takes him to a remote commune for celebrity impersonators, where she lives with her husband Charlie Chaplin and daughter Shirley Temple, along with the Pope, the Queen of England, James Dean, Madonna and the Three Stooges.
Once Jackson settles into this would-be paradise for people who aren't quite what they seem, things start to go a bit awry. Jealousies lurk beneath the surface and start to bubble over; the commune's sheep population gets sick and has to be taken down; and tensions rise. The group pulls together a celebrity impersonator variety show that they hope will attract crowds from far and wide to see and appreciate what they do, but in that effort, too, nothing comes out quite the way they'd hoped.
Interspersed with the impersonator storyline, we have an odd little side story involving a priest (Werner Herzog) and some nuns, who seem to be running some sort of aid operation. I kept waiting for that bit to converge somehow with the whole celeb impersonator bit, but it never happened. I suppose that loosely, there might be some underlying statement being made about the loss of personal identity -- the impersonators give up who they really are to try to become the celebs they're pretending to be, while the nuns, garbed in blue burqua-esque nun-frocks that conceal all but their faces, have an oblique sameness that obliterates personal identity as well. Beyond that, though, there didn't seem to be much tying the two stories together.
The idea of a group of celebrity impersonators living together on a commune is an intriguing premise for a film, with so much potential to be really great, which make the missteps along the way are all the more frustrating. Korine takes this interesting core of an idea and then spends the next 108 minutes meandering through the storyline, taking his time getting around to (very loosely) reaching a conclusion. The film is shot by Marcel Zyskind, and there are some lovely wide shots throughout the film, though occasionally the lighting is a bit too harsh; one scene toward the end of the film uses a flashlight and dramatic music in a way that would have worked fine once, but it gets overdone to the point of verging into melodrama, taking away from what could have been an effective moment. The opening shot of the film, though, with Michael riding a tiny motorbike with a stuffed monkey attached to it, is bizarrely great.
Diego Luna (Y tu mama tambien, Milk) gives a solid enough performance as Michael; I wouldn't have thought of him as a "Michael Jackson type" based on his previous work, but he's quite believable in assuming the Jackson persona; in an early scene where he's practicing his dance moves at home before going out to work, there's some subtle acting going on beneath the dancing that's quite nice. He's really at his best later in the film, when things fall apart and you can see more of the real person underneath coming out from beneath the persona.
Samantha Morton turns in a solid performance as Monroe, committing her all to the role of a woman who, like the real Monroe, is beautiful on the surface, but full of pain and uncertainty underneath. These two performances largely carry the film, though there is a particularly funny moment with the Pope in bed with Queen Elizabeth that was pretty hilarious. Korine has his own unique brand as a filmmaker, and I'd certainly rather see a filmmaker take chances than do the same-old, same-old, but in the places where the ideas don't seem to come together, it falls into feeling more pretentious and self-indulgent than artistic. And yet, in spite of all that, of all the films I've seen here so far, this is the one I keep thinking about and trying to figure out, so I suppose that, in all fairness, I have to say that on some level the film worked for me, frustrated though I felt with it at times.
The idea of people giving up their identities, either as nuns or impersonators, intrigues me with how it mirrors the hiding people do in their every day lives. We don't all dress up like Michael Jackson or Marilyn Monroe, or shroud ourselves beneath a nun's garment, but we do wear different faces and personalities for different situations, becoming one person on the job, another at home with the people we love, another when we're at a cocktail party around people we don't know.
Is Korine making some broader statement about self-identity and the ways in which we all bury ourselves beneath invented identies? I'm not sure if that's exactly what he was going for with Mister Lonely, but that's at least part of what I took out of it, which I suppose makes it a valid take for me. After all, art is a merging of both the perception the artist brings to the work and the perception the viewer takes into looking at it. Mister Lonely is the kind of film you have to work hard to get something out of, but, like the celebrity impersonators at the heart of the film, there's more to it than what you see on the surface. And maybe that's the whole point, after all.