If the Harmony Korine-scripted Kids notoriously lacked a moral compass, his first film as a director, Gummo, had no compass at all. It seemed to invent a dizzying new language of cinema, like French New Wave squeezed through a trailer park and then melted like plastic and smoked for a dangerous high. Unfortunately, the next thing Korine said with his new vocabulary was Julien Donkey-Boy. It was a dreary mess, he disappeared, and the revolution was over as quickly as it had begun.
Eight years later, the enfant terrible has returned, not such an enfant anymore. And maybe not so terrifying, either. Mister Lonely strips off the layers of provocation that normally obscure his essential curiosity and sympathy for his characters—it's not for the best.
Michael Jackson is sympathetic and pathetic enough to be a concoction of Korine's, but here we have Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) as a Jackson impersonator working in Paris, speaking little to no French—the isolated impersonator of an isolated man who is his own impersonation. He meets a Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) at an old folks' home, and normally if a Korine film ventures into an old folks' home you had better gird yourself for what follows. Not so here—the oldsters are not exploited for disturbing shock value, and the sight of Michael leading his equally lonely and fragile audience through a series of Jacksonesque hoos and hee-hees is touching without being sentimental.
Interspersed periodically with this story are scenes from another, in which Werner Herzog is a priest in charge of a group of happy, playful nuns wearing bright blue habits. To say more would spoil it, but if their story turns out to be essentially a gag, it's a gag that comments implicitly and somewhat obliquely on the Jackson story, lending it some much-needed complexity. If Mister Lonely had sustained the energy and creativity of its first half hour, it would be the best film of the year (the opening shot alone is one of the most lovely and entrancing you could hope to see). But once Marilyn persuades Michael to join her at a commune of fellow impersonators in the Scottish Highlands, the brilliance unravels.
The idea of a group of impersonators wandering around the grounds of a chateau, half in costume and character, tending to chores, is of course ridiculous. But it's also a delicious one, and a challenge Korine has set for himself to make the most of. But he utterly fails to mine it for anything more than the occasional visual incongruity or laugh, and it remains a mere conceit.
In The Idiots, fellow humanist provocateur Lars von Trier relentlessly probed the psychology of a commune of people acting out in childlike simplicity, and the film is devastating. In Mister Lonely almost nothing is thought out, or through, and the film articulates too much and too simply by having the characters mouth earnest, treacly statements about their way of life. Mostly it just falls rather flat, but a culminating scene is so idiotic I'm tempted to think Korine is playing a game in which he is intentionally offering a style which is as threadbare and inane as the lives on the screen.
If he is (and I doubt it), it hardly works dramatically. He has marshaled his usual ragtag assembly of striking scenes and images into a cleaner narrative, but the film could use a little more random disconnectedness, as evidenced by the richness that the nun story and the more inexplicable montages bring to the film. There are still enough beautiful shots and compelling moments to recommend Mister Lonely to the adventurous, but without the narrative chops to see him through, Korine should stick to making less sense, and let us put the pieces together ourselves.
Mister Lonely opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.