(2007) dir. Harmony Korine
After watching Gummo (1997), Harmony Korine’s first directorial feature film, I was pretty sure that I was not going to bother with any more of his movies, perhaps ever. That said, I maintained a curiosity in his following film, Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) for some weird fixation (I’ve still not seen it.) I came into awareness of him after his notoriety as the young screenwriter of Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), a film that totally disturbed me and put me off, though I assumed intentionally so.
So why then Mister Lonely, Korine’s bizarre film about a Michael Jackson impersonator (played by Diego Luna) who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (played by Samantha Morton), who takes him to a commune in Scotland entirely populated by impersonators: Abraham Lincoln, The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, Sammy Davis, Jr…. And then some other sort of unrelated plot line with Werner Herzog playing a priest who drops food to needy villagers and when he accidentally drops a nun too, creates an amazing miracle of nuns that freefall from airplanes who survive impact apparently due to their piety.
After watching Beautiful Losers (2008) recently, I was reminded of Korine (though not in a good way), but then started thinking about what I’d read about Mister Lonely and wondering if I shouldn’t give it a shot.
My problem with Korine has been that while he plays in absurdist motifs, they’ve also attempted to be sort of “gutterpunk”, depicting poor young kids, homeless people, and people who are or seem mentally challenged. Perhaps one might compare some of this to something akin to Diane Arbus or something, but it felt more exploitational (not that her work wasn’t, but that still images imbue a bit more silent dignity perhaps). And while there are moments in Mister Lonely that feel like these, when the Michael Jackson “hoo-hoo” performance in a French old folks’ home with shots of drooling and giggling elderly patients (seeming non-actors) and another weird scene in which Herzog absolves a man of his sins, who babbles partially non-sensibly. It’s sort of like using the non-actors in ways that makes fun of them rather than what is often done in using non-actors to achieve “realism”. Though again, that could be an arguable point.
However, Mister Lonely, partially due to the tender performances by Luna and Morton and a couple of the other impersonators, and partially in the script itself, there is something more here. The absurdity of images of Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe against the beautiful Scottish mountains and lochs, the other people who strive to be people other than who they are, like transsexuals, but in this case, transpersonalities, plays out with humanity and poetry.
The impersonators strive to put on “the greatest show on Earth”, a series of skits and dances by the characters, playing to a small local audience who don’t know what they are in for. And there is this striving for identity and happiness that seeps through. Could it be that Korine has evolved? It could.
It’s easy enough to say that Mister Lonely is still quite far enough out in the world of cult and oddity that it’s not going to work for the average filmgoer. Not that any of his work would, mind you. But it’s a striking thing, a somewhat moving film, something that feels like it will linger in the mind.