By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)
I will admit that Harmony Korine is not one of my favorite directors. If you have followed this weekly post for a while, you know that I have high tolerance for what others might call “weird” or “unwatchable” cinema, but frankly, I found Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) a little too weird and (virtually) unwatchable. However, after taking in Mister Lonely, I guess Korine can make a “watchable” film…in the form of this tragicomic rumination on alienation, mental illness, and the human tendency to kowtow at the alter of both pop culture and “God” with equal fervor.
Beautifully shot by DP Marcel Zyskind (Code 46, The Road to Guantanamo), the film begins with an elegiac slow-mo sequence reminiscent of the opening credits for Blue Velvet. Choreographed to Bobby Vinton’s plaintive ballad “Mr. Lonely”, a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna), replete with requisite red jacket, shades and surgical mask, rides a scooter, with a stuffed, winged monkey toy in tow. It’s a remarkable scene that manages to convey both a blissful innocence and an aching sadness at the same time.
The otherwise shy and awkward young man puts out his hat and performs all the requisite flamboyant MJ dance moves in the streets of Paris, where he is largely ignored; he supplements this meager income with help from an “agent” who gets him the odd booking. While performing at a nursing home, he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have an immediate attraction to each other, although “Marilyn” is quick to mention her husband, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant). She and “Charlie” live on a communal farm in Scotland with their daughter “Shirley Temple” and a few dozen other celebrity impersonators; she talks Michael into joining this odd but welcoming community (the “One of us! One of us!” chant from Freaks did enter my mind.)
At first glance, this extended family of fringe dwellers appears to lead a Utopian existence. They have a barn (yes, at one point, they do put on a show). They cheerfully tend to the livestock and enjoy warm communal mealtimes together (usually in full costume), but upon closer examination, it seems that there is trouble in paradise.
A sadomasochistic undercurrent runs through Marilyn and Charlie’s marriage; a tearful Marilyn blurts out the film’s best line: “Sometimes, when I look at you, you seem more like Adolph Hitler than Charlie Chaplain.” The “Pope” (James Fox) is an alcoholic. “Abe Lincoln” (Richard Strange) has an impulse to utilize “fuck” in every sentence. The Buckwheat impersonator has an unhealthy obsession with chickens…and so on. Korine throws in a weaker second narrative concerning a missionary priest/pilot (German director Werner Herzog, who cannot act) and his posse of er, flying nuns who help him do relief work in Central America. I will say no more.
Luna and Morton both give lovely and touching performances. I won’t pretend I completely grasped Korine’s intent; but his film is engaging, emotionally resonant, and ultimately haunting. I find it easier to contextualize by pointing to two Nicholas Roeg films that I strongly suspect had a major influence on Korine here: Performance (1970) and Insignificance (1985).
In Performance (written and co-directed by Donald Cammel), the narrative plays with the concept of two self-loathing protagonists who swap identities in an attempt to escape themselves; in essence “impersonating” each other. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Korine has cast two of the principal actors from Performance in his film-James Fox and Anita Pallenberg (who plays the Queen of England impersonator).
In Insignificance, screenwriter Terry Johnson fantasizes Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Senator Joe McCarthy and Albert Einstein interacting in a hotel room in the 1950s; the result is a strange but compelling treatise on fame, politics and nuclear paranoia. Korine uses the same device (the unlikely juxtaposition of iconic figures) to expound on his themes as well. Granted, Mister Lonely is not for all tastes, but if you would prefer to not “Mess With the Zohan” this summer, thank you very much, it is one possible alternative.