03 June 2008

A FILM ABOUT, AND WITH, A LACK OF IDENTITY

Without having seen any of his work, my understanding of '90s Wunderkind Harmony Korine was that he was a director of shocking! films that were so edgy! and controversial! as to call into question our very concepts of morality and acceptable representation in film. This preconception may indeed be an accurate one. All I know is that Mister Lonely, his third feature-length film a director and fourth as writer, is not shocking, edgy, or controversial in the least. It is inordinately messy and undisciplined, but I doubt very much that this is what people were talking about.

The disappointing thing about Mister Lonely is that it has a weirdly compelling idea: celebrity impersonators who live their entire lives as the figure they're mimicking living together on a damp commune in the highlands. There, they eke out a happy survivalist lifestyle while building a stage where they will mount the world's greatest celebrity impersonator show. There's a lot you could do with that concept, and to Korine's credit, he doesn't do nothing. He does just about the least he possibly can to still end up with a 112-minute film, and even then some of the themes he teases out seem to contradict some of the others. But there are themes, so the thing isn't completely wretched.

With little in the way of plot, the film presents a Mexican Michael Jackson (Diego Luna), Marylin Monroe (Samantha Morton, a magnificent actress severely under-used by her role), her control-freak husband, a French Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), who between themselves form a low-key romantic triangle, and a host of others: Marilyn and Charlie's daughter, Shirley Temple (Esme Creed-Miles), a foul-mouthed Abraham Lincoln (Richard Strange), Madonna (Melita Morgan), James Dean (Joseph Morgan, no relation that I can find), Sammy Davis, Jr. (Jason Pennycooke), the Pope - not a specific Pope, just the Pope (James Fox), Queen Elizabeth II (Anita Pallenberg, noted girlfriend to the Rolling Stones), fictional character Little Red Riding Hood (Rachel Korine, the director's wife), Little Rascal Buckwheat (Quentin Grosset), Moe Howard (Daniel Rovai), Larry Fine (Mal Whiteley), and a bald man who looks in not the vaguest way like Curly Howard (Nigel Cooper). Does it seem like I have wasted your time and mine by doing nothing other than listing the famous people being impersonated? Then indeed I have satisfactorily recreated the experience of watching Mister Lonely. An unrelated subplot - and by "unrelated" I mean "unrelated not just in story terms, but in how it is shot and what themes it explores" - concerns Father Umbrillo (Werner Herzog, in his second performance for Korine), an airplane-flying priest who watches over a community of nuns that begin to spread a gospel of skydiving without a parachute to prove your faith in God, when one of their number (Britta Gartner) falls thousands of feet from a plane during a food drop and lands unscathed.

Now, I enjoy a flying nun picture as much as the next red-blooded American, but there is not a single reason that I have been able to puzzle out why the Herzog/nun interludes are weaved into the greater body of the film other than the raw fact that it could be. Directorial ego, in other words. And it's directorial ego that pretty much defines everything about Mister Lonely, which despite a pretty fine opening fifteen minutes set in Paris, and multiple scenes and shots stitched into the film's crazy-quilt structure that are absolutely breathtaking in their compositional audacity, fails to achieve any kind of cumulative meaning outside of Korine's private amusement. I will never deny any filmmaker the right to his private amusements - such things are infinitely more intriguing than the latest generic make-work film - but it's a shame that those amusements are here so private as to be inscrutable. Enough parts of the film work, even if just for the curiosity of watching famous faces collide in unexpected contexts, that the failure of the whole to cohere into anything meaningful has to count as a missed opportunity.

There's really no reason at all for any of this. Early in the film, Michael and Marilyn each speak a little to the idea that it's better to be happy by choosing who you want to be, than to be unhappy as the identity you were given at birth, but that theme is never explored and it becomes very hard to reconcile with the ending, which is itself a bit hard to figure out (is the last shot "real"? Or just a flashback? It materially alters the meaning of the film). And the fact that these people are celebrity impersonators is a frippery only marginally related to that theme. Other than the delight in watching e.g. Abraham Lincoln and the Three Stooges painting a room, or the Queen and the Pope in bed together, there's nothing about any of the involved celebrities' personae that informs the film's meaning, and except for the Stooges, Michael Jackson and sometimes Charlie Chaplin, none of the characters consistently act like their adopted identity - mostly, they seem like normal people who just happen to walk around in costumes.

It's lovely to look at, and rather aggressively original, but Mister Lonely is so addle-minded that I can only think of one word to describe it: boring. Not much to add the résumé of a noted provocateur, and I can only hope that his next film is out-and-out child porn, or something equally likely to compensate for the clever blandness of this latest work.

5/10

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