It’s movies like this that the art house was made for. And not just because Mister Lonely seems to be named after the type of audience member it’s most likely to attract.
This one’s probably going to divide everybody. Newcomers to the cult-prone Harmony Korine canon (including Kids, which he wrote, and Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, which he wrote and directed) will fight about whether Mister Lonely is hollow and pretentious or just plain fucking rad. Members of the cult will fight about whether its sweet and dreamy sentimentalism constitutes a betrayal or an outgrowing of Korine’s earlier, brattier movies. Critics will continue their chest-thumping pronouncements about the desecration or consecration of American indie cinema. Hell, even the suits in distribution are probably fighting right now over whether or not this thing has legs enough to open in Sacramento next weekend as was originally planned.
They should have a little faith: Although they may find themselves divided by him, people do have faith in Harmony Korine. Consider Diego Luna and Samantha Morton, his Mister Lonely lead performers. When Korine says, “In my next film, you, Diego, will play a meek Michael Jackson impersonator who, when not riding his ludicrously tiny, monkey-puppet-adorned minibike around a go-cart track in wistful slow motion, is dancing for his dinner in the streets of Paris; and you, Samantha, will play the openhearted Marilyn Monroe impersonator who befriends Michael during his gig at the old-folks’ home and persuades him to join your celebrity impersonators’ commune in the Scottish Highlands,” these two apparently say, “Sign me up!”
And Korine and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind let the camera love them for it with close-ups so ravishing that other stuff not making conventional-movie sense somehow seems like the last thing on anybody’s mind. The other imposters, by the way, include the pope and his wife Queen Elizabeth II; Sammy Davis Jr.; Buckwheat; Abraham Lincoln; James Dean; Madonna; Little Red Riding Hood; and the Three Stooges; plus Marilyn’s husband Charlie Chaplin and their daughter Shirley Temple. “There are no truer souls than those souls who impersonate,” one of them says. Together they are readying a talent show. (Michael’s crotch-grab and moonwalk, at least, are audience-ready.)
No wonder older eccentric filmmakers whom he admires also have faith in Harmony Korine. “You, Werner Herzog, will play the missionary priest who flies the twin-prop airplane from which all the nuns jump without parachutes.” This could be said to refer to the movie’s subplot, but of course, even the main plot is sort of sub. Not that plot is everything, or anything; cinema has other ways of expressing itself, and they can be powerful even without meaning anything. Maybe a semi-self-tortured valentine to the lunatic creative fringe—particularly maverick moviemakers and the faith-leapers they enlist—is meaning enough.
All told, Mister Lonely, which Korine wrote with his brother Avi, doesn’t really have so much to say about individual expression or our cultural obsession with celebrity—and thank God, because who wants to sit through some photographed position paper on a self-evident topic by, of all people, the maker of Gummo? Nor, come to think of it (and thankfully), are there any scenes of cats being drowned. Mister Lonely does, however, involve a flock of sick sheep being shotgunned by the Three Stooges, but presents this moment discreetly, perhaps to allow a deeper registration of its sad-funny absurdity. Actually, Korine is showing a knack for sad-funny absurdities here, and for presenting them in the bluntly intimate, illogical rhythms of dreams. Not to stroke the guy’s ego too much, but that, historically, is what the great filmmakers do. What if he’s becoming one?
OK, so, let’s fight about it, with this peculiarly seductive movie—neither dramatically nor formally rigorous, but so consistently and contagiously yearning—as the latest case in point. Insouciant yet audacious, wholly guileless yet inherently affected, filled with traipsing fake pop-culture icons and with anonymous flying nuns, Mister Lonely implies that even Korine feels divided about himself. But he also seems at least sincere enough to take himself on faith. What could be more worth watching than that?