Fantasy island: Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) and Michael Jackson (Diego Luna) head off the mainland in Harmony Korine's 'Mister Lonely.' (Photo by O'South, courtesy IFC Films)

Review: "Mister Lonely"

Max Goldberg May 19, 2008

Part Luis Buñuel parable, Artforum spread, Jonestown ballet and Warhol camp, Harmony Korine’s latest film is a prime, insomniac two hours of midnight-movie drifting. Mister Lonely is Korine’s first film since 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy and his third feature since his rainmaking screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids (released to much controversy in 1995, when Korine was all of 22). Erratic perhaps, but then maybe that’s a good thing given the endemic professionalism of much American independent film.

Mister Lonely
is certainly his mostly plainly winsome film yet, though the 35-year old Korine still tends towards the associative, scene-by-scene narration style that’s marked his work since Gummo (1997). Two parallel story threads unfold in the Scottish Highlands and Panama, though the first actually begins in Paris when a shy Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) meets a Marilyn Monroe personage (Samantha Morton) at a nursing home performance. She invites him to a misty island inhabited by fellow impersonators where she lives with her Charlie Chaplin husband (Denis Lavant) and Shirley Temple daughter (Esme Creed-Miles). Once there, Korine employs Altman-like framings to bring the impersonators’ brittle artifice into the realm of naturalism: Buckwheat (Michael-Joel Stuart) babbling about chicken breasts, Sammy Davis Jr. (Jason Pennycooke) working on his routine on top of a castle, the Queen of England (Anita Pallenberg) enjoying a cigarette. Meanwhile, in Panama a voluble Catholic priest (played with expected relish by Werner Herzog) sweeps several sweet-faced nuns onto a small jet to drop food supplies.

These conceits are variously nutty and cloying, and in the broadest sense of the narrative’s impact, Mister Lonely is somewhat disappointing. Herzog intones, "Who are we to doubt such miracles?" after a nun has, through the grace of Korine’s imagination, fallen from an airplane unscathed; Michael, the titular never-never man, explains about becoming who you are on a voice-over track—these stabs at cohesion seem overly solemn and unnecessary given the film’s natural rhythms of unblinking fear punctuated by flights of strange beauty. There’s a palpable dread which builds throughout the film, most directly in Marilyn and Charlie’s degenerative relationship (at a particularly painful moment, she tells him he resembles Hitler more than Chaplin) and a disease-stricken flock of sheep. When Korine allows this impressionistic drama to hang diffuse, trusting each scene to flower in its own time with the help of an excellent original score penned by J. Spaceman and the sadly departed Sun City Girls, his film reminds me of a slightly psychedelic The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). Korine was exposed to commune living and circus performers at an early age and is surely channeling some of that autobiographical color here, but Mister Lonely’s most moving moments reflect the artist as he is. A tremendous quiet engulfs shots of James Dean (Joseph Morgan) and Little Red Riding Hood (Korine’s wife, Rachel) washing clothes, skydiving nuns, and even the impersonators’ "greatest show on earth"—it’s the quiet after a storm and good news for those who have long hoped that Korine’s sensitive talent wouldn’t be outstripped by his celebrity.