SCREENED AT THE 2008 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: “Mister Lonely” invites the audience to ponder many philosophical questions. What is the purpose of a miracle? Is it a blessing or a curse to find oneself among people who share your passions completely? Can you choose your own identity, or must it be stumbled upon? And, of course, which is funnier/freakier – a Scottish castle populated entirely by celebrity impersonators, or Werner Herzog dropping nuns out of an airplane without parachutes?
These are the twin stories told by Harmony Korine’s new film. In the main path, we meet a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna). While performing at a home for the elderly, he is discovered by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) who describes their community and invites him to join – they don’t have a Michael yet! Michael’s and Marilyn’s arrival is greeted with excitement by most of the group except for Marilyn’s husband Charlie Chaplin (Denis Levant), who is jealous. There are more practical concerns there, though, as the group is trying to build a theater to put on a show and dealing with a disease that has stricken their herd of sheep.
Meanwhile, in Africa, a mun who falls out of Father Umbrillo’s (Herzog) plane during a food drop concludes that faith gives one the power to fly.
Almost every shot in the film is surreal in some way, whether it be the dizzying shots of the nuns falling through the sky or frames which have hazmat-suited health officials inspecting the sheep while Abraham Lincoln, Charlie Chaplin, and James Dead look on from the background. Even though Michael Jackson is already a punchline, Korine does a nice job of mining laughs from just how silly his routine looks removed from context.
Not all of these weird, off-kilter moments work. Korine has a reputation for being strange or perverse simply because the option is there (I don’t know first-hand; I’ve not seen his previous films), and there are certainly signs of that here. The image which opens and closes the film is kind of random – beautiful, in a way, but rather disconnected from the rest of the film. There’s no story connection between the celebrity impersonators and the flying nuns, and the thematic one I came up with after the film feels tenuous. And there’s one scene where Korine screws with the focus on the camera for what seems like no purpose other than irritating the audience. One could probably find an artistic reason for it in hindsight, but it’s the sort of artistic decision that can literally take an audience out of the film, to the lobby, to complain about the screwy projection.
Some of that’s to be expected and forgiven; the movie has a bizarre premise, so some strange execution is probably to be expected. It is, arguably, a worthwhile trade-off in order to be introduced to some of the strange characters who populate the film’s world. That Werner Herzog is a treat goes almost without saying; even if he never directs another film, he could have a great career delivering off-kilter lines with a straight face and the sort of precise diction that tells us that this is exactly what he means. Michael’s Parisian friend and booker Renard (Leos Carax) steals both of his scenes. Most of the impersonators are at least amusing enough to get the audience curious about them, although it is Richard Strange’s Abraham Lincoln who seems to get a huge laugh almost every time he appears. A grouchy, f-bomb-dropping, no-nonsense Lincoln is a great counterweight to some of the other characters.
Like the main character. Luna does a good job of suggesting Michael Jackson, though not really looking like him, and his dancing bits are a stitch. Luna does capture the sort of creepy, deliberate childishness that has made the real thing so unnerving in his performance, but a side effect of that is that his Michael winds up being just a bit too much a blank slate. The audience just never has any relationship with this guy aside from laughing at his dancing.
Samantha Morton’s Marilyn winds up much more interesting; she’s kind of chatty, has a contentious relationship with her husband, and there’s always this question about how much and what kind of interest she has in Michael. As much as Michael remains a cipher despite his occasional narration and other moments of self-description, Morton gives us a nuanced portrayal of fragile self-esteem. So does Lavant, although his Charlie doesn’t shrink the way Marilyn does; he’s more the type to compensate by being a bully.
Is there something worthwhile to be found here? Absolutely, no question about that – Richard Strange and Werner Herzog may be worth the price of admission alone. The question is, how much of the movie will come across as interestingly strange and how much is strange as a substitute for interesting?