by Jason Coffman
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Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely is a beautiful, heartbreaking mess. The fact that there is much to admire about the film is tempered by a feeling of missed opportunities and questionable creative decisions. It’s a film that is at the same time completely unique and regrettably predictable. In short, Mister Lonely is a film that is admirable on many levels but ultimately feels hamstrung by lazy irony exactly where the film needed more of the originality on display everywhere else.
The film follows two stories that are seemingly unrelated. In the main storyline, a Spanish Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) living in Paris meets an American Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton), who talks him into moving to a commune in the Scottish highlands populated entirely by celebrity impersonators. They all live together in a castle and are working on building a playhouse in which they will perform “the greatest show on Earth,” featuring performances by Madonna, James Dean, Little Red Riding Hood, Abe Lincoln, Buckwheat from The Little Rascals, etc. Complications arise when Marilyn’s abusive husband Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant) becomes jealous of her friendship with (and increasing attraction to) Michael.
In the film’s other story, a group of nuns in South America perform air drops of food for remote villages and become famous when one of the nuns accidentally falls out of their small passenger plane and lands unharmed. She returns to the other sisters and implores them to do the same, because she believe God wants them “to do tricks.” The sisters take to the skies and follow suit until word makes its way all the way to the Vatican, where the Pope requests an audience with them and their Priest, Father Umbrillo (Werner Herzog).
The film is a departure from Korine’s previous two feature films in many ways. The most immediately obvious difference is the film’s look, which is colorful and often startlingly beautiful, taking advantage of the wide screen in a way he never has before (thanks in no small part to Marcel Zyskind’s excellent cinematography). Another important departure is the fact that more of the cast this time around are familiar faces, and not just because they’re impersonating hugely famous personalities. Diego Luna and Samantha Morton both turn in fragile but powerful performances, and Werner Herzog is entertainingly bizarre, as usual. The multiple storylines and vastly different locations are also considerably more ambitious than Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy as well.
All these admirable qualities make it even more disappointing that Korine (and his brother/co-writer Avi Korine) steer the stories toward endings that feel less like their natural conclusions and more like easy, ironic punch lines. The concept of the film’s stories and their execution are so unique and enjoyable that it feels like a cheat when their conclusions are so predictably downbeat. This isn’t to say that downbeat endings aren’t valid, but when the rest of the film shows off such imagination and a willingness to show us strange new things, a typical indie-film “Life sucks, bro” finale seems inappropriate.
Despite its disappointments, however, there is no doubt that Mister Lonely is a unique, often very powerful film. Any film that inspires as much impassioned discussion as this one is truly worth watching. We can only hope that Korine doesn’t make us wait another eight years for his next film, or that if he does it delivers on the promise of greatness that Mister Lonely implies but doesn’t quite reach.
Jason Coffman is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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