Intentionally or not, Harmony Korine built his reputation on being the enfant terrible of American art-house cinema, the impish prankster whose art seemed to draw on charm rather than hardened professionalism. This put him in a different league to that other film-buff-turned-indies wunderkind, Quentin Tarantino. If the two had been children playing in the same sandbox, maybe there would have been a little animosity. Tarantino, who can be relied upon to deliver entertainment no matter what, would have been the popular leader of the gang, while Korine would have sat in a corner — enigmatic, self-sufficient and private.
Korine’s been lambasted by many critics, but he has been able to rely on support from some hip, discerning adults (Larry Clark, who launched him to fame with “Kids,” and Lars Von Trier, among others), which probably accounts for why Korine, now 35, remains an iconic darling of American independent cinema.
“Mister Lonely” is his first feature film in eight years. An intimate, personal work, it bears the stamp of Korine’s own life without being blatantly autobiographical. He collaborated on the screenplay with his brother Avi, there’s an appearance by Korine’s recently-wed wife Rachael, and the brilliant cast includes a magic circle of friends (including renowned directors such as Werner Herzog and Leos Carax) that will have film-buff jaws dropping from Hollywood to Berlin. It’s also a testimonial to Korine’s still-plentiful reserve of skewed, slightly bizarre originality, and skill at transporting his mindscape to the screen. The opening scene shows a Michael Jackson lookalike trailing a toy monkey on a string as he goes round and round a miniature race course on a tiny motorcycle while the soundtrack plays Bobby Vinton crooning the title song. The repetition — more than four minutes of this — is mesmerizing but a little irritating; in many ways it’s as self-indulgent and devoid of exertion as the protagonist Michael (Diego Luna of “Y tu mama tambien”). But then, this is a guy who makes his living off impersonating Michael Jackson so a little irritation is necessarily part of the package.
Michael lives — and does his Michael gigs — in Paris (though these don’t include riding motorcycles), where he meets Marilyn (Samantha Morton), a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who invites him to spend the summer in a commune in Scotland made up entirely of people who can only function as someone else. Marilyn’s husband Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), their small daughter Shirley Temple (Esme Creed-Miles), The Pope (James Fox) and Madonna (Melita Morgan) are among the notables.
Korine breaks up this story of Michael and Marilyn with a separate poetically-connected tale. The setting is a Catholic mission in Panama, where the nuns discover they have suddenly acquired the power of flight. A breathlessly wonderful scene shows them joining hands in mid-air, their habits flapping in the wind as they float suspended in a periwinkle sky. But the miracle doesn’t last and the nuns fall from grace, as it were, to the ocean below. At about the same time, Michael and Marilyn begin their own descent from a dream world built on self-deception, landing non too softly atop a realization that they are unsuited and unequipped for battle in the real world. By then, it’s too late for anyone to be saved or, more to the point, for them to save each other.
“Mister Lonely” doesn’t judge or condone the characters for their over-the-top eccentricities. It simply observes what happens when the spell of self-styled fantasies are broken and the wings come off — all seen through the cool (but not cruel) gaze of a director who achieved hipster status at the age of 19 when he wrote the screenplay for “Kids.” For Harmony Korine, “Mister Lonely” isn’t a sad story per se, but just the recounting of some of the things that can happen to those who deem themselves too special to fit in.