Mister Lonely — the first film in eight years from Harmony Korine, the
erstwhile l’enfant terrible behind 1995’s Kids, as its screenwriter,
and, later, the even more avant-garde Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy —
summons to mind nothing quite so much as, from U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill
Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” the following lyric: “Dressing like your
sister/Living like a tart/They don’t know what you’re doing/Babe, it
must be art!”
Of course that song, a one-off contribution to the soundtrack for 1995’s Batman Forever, was an acknowledged exercise in ironic, self-referential vamping. Co-written with his brother Avi, Korine’s movie is part deadpan acting class exercise, part metaphorical art school construct. It’s also never less than wholly sincere, which is why it comes off as such a tangled mess of unruly intentions, like the drunken, yammering high school friend of yesteryear trying to tell you three stories at once.
The main story here centers around a Parisian Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) and takes her up on an impulsive offer to move back with her to a commune in the Scottish Highlands, where Marilyn lives with her husband Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), daughter Shirley Temple, and a group of other impersonators that includes Sammy Davis, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, the Three Stooges, Madonna, Buckwheat and James Dean. All the nutty goings-on at this sort of island for misfit toys — which include ping pong, drunken carousing and prepping for a talent show that will in theory provide a much-needed cash infusion — are crosscut with unrelated events in a Latin American jungle, where nuns flying food-drop aid missions with a chattering priest (Werner Herzog) come to realize they are blessed with a special gift.
Korine has an undeniable eye for images — witness the slow-motion opening credit sequence set to Bobby Vinton’s heartbreaking title tune (above), and some amazing skydiving nun footage — as well as an occasionally deft touch with mood. What he needs, though, is someone to impose more rigid structure. Very loosely, Mister Lonely is about locating thankfulness in a topsy-turvy world, and yet part of its dark metaphorical conclusion relates to the special death that those who dare to dream out loud die. (Very literally, the commune’s diseased sheep are put down early in the movie, yet similarly harsh fates await other characters.)
Korine seems to lose interest in Michael as a focal character, though, and the film suffers as a consequence. Without him as our cracked protagonist, or a stronger sense of the ensemble characters, things that could or should be funny — like Buckwheat giving an unruly, sobbing Pope a bath, or Lincoln riding bitch on a motorcycle, drumming up talent show business through a megaphone — only serve to reinforce the point that Mister Lonely is less than the sum of its colorful parts. (IFC, unrated, 112 minutes)