Mister Lonely

O’SOUTH/IFC First Take
Harmony Korine/United Kingdom-France-Ireland-United States 2008

Of all the directors working today, Harmony Korine is the last one you’d expect to make a parable about the hoof-and-mouth crisis which recently badly damaged the U.K. farming industry. But Korine has couched his critique of modern farming methods in a pastiche of celebrity culture and how this can overshadow personal identities. One expects nothing less from the man who gave us Gummo, slice-of-life white-trash Americana which featured Linda Manz in her first screen role for nearly 20 years, and Julien Donkey-Boy, the first Dogme-certified American movie ever made. Mister Lonely demonstrates Korine’s increased aspirations both as a filmmaker and with his budget; it also contains more coherent plot and traditional filmic structure than his earlier films combined.

Featuring strong primary colors and a wide-ranging soundtrack which carefully evokes particular moods, Mister Lonely could have been a sparkling, carefree character piece. Instead, partially due to its flat and mainly joyless visual style, it deteriorates into a sour mess that feels a lot longer than its 112 minutes. An over-reliance on cliché and clunky metaphors – the commune’s sheep culled on vet’s orders are black, for example – takes away the fun inherent in the premise and renders Diego Luna’s and Samantha Morton’s nuanced performances as out-of-place as a slice of bacon in a bathtub. Korine has clearly grown as a filmmaker, but his rawness needs tempering to enable greatness.

The titular Mister Lonely is a Michael Jackson impersonator (Luna) who scratches a living in Paris through busking and charmingly inappropriate shows in nursing homes. He bumps into Marilyn Monroe (Morton, clearly cast for her equally uncanny ability to absorb all the available light) who brings him back to the castle in Scotland where she lives in an impersonator community including her husband, Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant) and various others, among them a foul-mouthed Abraham Lincoln (Richard Strange), Queen Elizabeth (Anita Pallenberg) and the Pope (James Fox).

The whole point of a Korine film isn’t what happens, but rather how this reveals the hidden core of the people involved. The rest of the plot involves the impersonators building a barn to put on a show. Few other filmmakers embrace real life, including real-life financial restraints, with such verve. His movies are much greater than the sum of their parts, so his continued ability to attract support and financing is no surprise.

It’s less easy to understand how he is able to attract such a strong caliber of actors. Luna and Morton get the majority of screen time, with the others’ costumes providing the sole definition of their character. Such lazy treatment of so many potentially interesting people wastes the clever premise. What’s more, Morton, who has two Oscar nominations is not well-treated. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind makes the camera an eager participant in her humiliation, particularly in one nasty little scene between her and Lavant. It made me think of Young Adam, when Ewan McGregor smears the flour and mustard on Emily Mortimer. That was disturbing, but there was no impression there, as there is here, that the filmmakers were egging it on. Korine was not this unkind to Chloe Sevigny in his earlier films; it’s a worrying development in his style.

And I didn’t even mention Werner Herzog and the sky-diving nuns. This ridiculous, senseless, beautifully shot, free-wheeling subplot, which is not referenced by the rest of the film, blows the rest of it away. Weirdness for its own sake can be fun and gorgeous – if only Korine had applied this lesson to the whole of his film.

© 2007 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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