Harmony Korine was the It Boy of off-off-Hollywood filmmaking back in the late '90s, alienating audiences and critics alike with his Diane Arbus-like portraits of life's neglected and rejected. Now, a decade after Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, here's Mister Lonely, Korine's return to the Cinema du Poète Maudit. And if it's just as fanciful as the others, in a what-the-hell's-going-on kind of way, it's also sweeter, sadder, more romantic. The themes alone would warm the cockles of a Hollywood producer's heart: our desire to be someone other than who we are, to believe in something beyond ourselves, even (gulp) God. But Korine's more concerned with the melancholy that underlies those feelings than with what happens when you wish upon a star.
Speaking of stars, just about everybody in Mister Lonely is a star impersonator. The main character, whom we'll just have to call Michael Jackson since the script (by Korine and his brother, Avi) never assigns him another name, opens the movie by pulling off some of Jacko's most difficult dance moves in a Parisian plaza. He's not just an entertainer, he's living as Michael Jackson, as a drag queen might live full-time as a woman. And for the Korines, this seems to be a state of grace - none so real as those who fake it with every ounce of their beings. Y Tu Mama Tambien's Diego Luna, who has the face Michael Jackson may have been striving for all these years, brings an innocence to the role that has you pulling for both "Michael Jackson" and Michael Jackson, the latter as much a Michael Jackson impersonator as the former.
At a nursing-home gig, where the residents don't appear to be completely in on the joke, Michael meets Marilyn Monroe - a reasonable facsimile, anyway. And if Luna brings a beau triste to his role, Samantha Morton, dolled up like Miss Monroe, unloads the full pathos of this flickering candle in the wind. Recognizing a soul mate, Marilyn invites Michael back to the Scottish Highlands, of all places, where there's a community of impersonators who are part hippie commune, part artist's colony and part lunatic asylum. Among their numbers are Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), Queen Elizabeth (Anita Pallenberg) and the Pope (James Fox). And we spend the rest of the movie with them, hanging out, tending sheep, putting on a show.
No, none of it makes much sense, except on the metaphysical plane. And let's not even bring up the completely separate subplot about a flock of nuns in Central America who, in an act of extreme faith, jump out of airplanes without the benefit of parachutes. But as Korine recently told New York magazine, "I never cared so much about making perfect sense, I wanted to make perfect nonsense."
A decent amount of the time, that's exactly what he's done.