The writer/director Harmony Korine might have been -- and might still be -- one of the most audacious and terrifying new American talents in some time. At the age of 19, he wrote the script for Larry Clark's Kids (1995) and made his own directorial debut with Gummo (1997), a film so astonishing that most reviewers panned it simply to get it out of their heads. He then made the first official American Dogme 95 film, Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), and cast one of his biggest fans, director Werner Herzog, in a starring role.
All three films conjured up images that inspired the gag reflex. It was hard to look away, though. They were odd and sad and not a little repulsive. From there, he retreated into other art forms, such as photography and music (he directed music videos for Cat Power and Sonic Youth), returning to features only to write Clark's Ken Park (2002), which was so lurid it failed to secure a U.S. distributor. Indeed, like many of the most cutting edge American directors, most of Korine's fans, and financiers, currently reside outside the U.S.
So for his long-awaited third feature film, Mister Lonely, we find the 35 year-old Korine in an unexpected place: in the arms of his family. He co-wrote the film with his brother Avi, and cast his wife Rachel in one of the lead roles. The film is dedicated to his late grandmother. And so it goes that Mister Lonely is about a kind of family. The film opens with a bizarre image, a man riding a kind of short motorcycle toward the camera (in slow motion). He appears to be wearing a mask and has a small monkey (with wings) flying behind him. Bobby Vinton's song "Mister Lonely" plays, to the exclusion of all other sound.
This image may or may not thematically introduce our main character, Michael Jackson -- or rather a Michael Jackson impersonator -- played by Diego Luna. He's working the streets of Paris, doing Michael's famous dance moves and wearing Michael's strange clothing (black fedora, glittery marching band shirts, high-water pants, etc.), but never sings. (The film's four segments are named after Jackson songs.)
While performing in an old folks' home, chanting that the residents can "live forever," Michael meets Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton), who invites him to stay at a kind of commune for celebrity impersonators. Her husband Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant) and their daughter Shirley Temple (Esme Creed-Miles) also live there. (Lavant once starred in a Chaplinesque movie called Tuvalu.)
The rest of the "family" includes Buckwheat, of "The Little Rascals" fame (Michael-Joel Stuart), Sammy Davis Jr. (Jason Pennycooke), James Dean (Joseph Morgan), Abraham Lincoln (Richard Strange), Little Red Riding Hood (Rachel Korine), Madonna (Melita Morgan), The Pope (James Fox), Queen Elizabeth (Anita Pallenberg) and the Three Stooges: Moe (Daniel Rovai), Larry (Mal Whiteley) and Curly (Nigel Cooper). (Incidentally, James Fox and Anita Pallenberg are reunited for the first time since Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's 1970 film Performance, no doubt on purpose.) Lincoln uses the "F" word a lot, Buckwheat is obsessed with chickens and the Pope doesn't like to bathe.
In a parallel story, a priest, Father Umbrillo (Werner Herzog) takes three nuns on a mission to drop food out of a plane to needy recipients below. One of the nuns falls out of the plane and lands, unhurt. (Is this a deliberate reference to the old Sally Field TV show "The Flying Nun"?) She decides that God wants other nuns to jump out of planes, so she begins her quest to persuade them.
So where's the story? Well, Marilyn kind of flirts with Michael, and he is clearly smitten with her, but Charlie has a kind of menace that the real Chaplin never had; he even leaves his wife sleeping in the sun, causing her to burn terribly. The commune's flock of sheep falls ill and must be exterminated, and then everyone bands together to build a theater to put on a big show, "The Greatest Show on Earth." Fortunately the show isn't a fundraiser to prevent evil developers from tearing down some old building; it's just a show. Korine isn't one for dramatic tension. More often than not, we simply watch as characters go about their day. Little Red Riding Hood sings, James Dean writes something in a notebook and the Queen washes dishes.
Korine wraps up his two storylines with a plea to "be yourself," but also with a colossal joke, each more or less canceling out the other. Though Mister Lonely seems sweeter and more mainstream than Korine's other films, it still has that sense of randomness, of pathetic luck and habit and wisdom all combining to make up a life, or a collision of lives.
Korine doesn't care how these people got to be this way, or how they turn out. But watching a bit of their typical behavior can reveal a lot, perhaps more than a beginning, middle and ending can. Korine takes his time -- when the film doesn't use slow motion, it seems like it's in slow motion -- and the film ambles all the way up to a 113-minute running time. His eclectic choice of music allows the pace to work; he wants us to stop, look and listen. He wants to draw us in, but also push us away. His ultimate trick is that he likes to shoot his actors from distances, so that they look a bit like the real McCoys. It's disappointing to find that they're not, but it's also even more intriguing to wonder: who are they, then?
For another take on Mister Lonely, check out Kim Voynar's review from SXSW.