Review: Mister Lonely
3.5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
I tend to shy away from films that could be defined as “art for the sake of art.” Too often, semi-talented filmmakers who strive for eccentricity presume that whatever is caught by their camera's lens becomes art in the recording process. Not so, in my opinion. Cinema is a medium of storytelling, meant to operate in conjunction with its imagery. That said, I'm also a sucker for gorgeous photography. Put that same camera into the hands of a true artist - with similar intentions but a singular vision - and the result can be something exceptional and transfixing to watch. Despite its unique subject matter, writer/director Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely doesn't have a whole lot to say thematically that hasn't been said before (and with greater effect). But it's so beautiful in its presentation that I couldn't help falling under its spell.
The movie opens with the iconic Bobby Vinton song of the title. It plays as a man is riding a mini-motorcycle around a track, dragging a plush monkey with wings behind him (is it the monkey on his back, or the angel on his shoulder?). The man is Michael Jackson, but not the one you and I know. He's a celebrity impersonator, played by Diego Luna (the Mexican Robert Mitchum of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Criminal). Michael is a lost soul living paycheck to paycheck performing in Paris, until a gig at an old folks' home leads him to meet a Marilyn Monroe look-alike played by two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (In America, Sweet and Lowdown). Marilyn invites Michael to her seaside castle in the Scottish Highlands, where impersonators like themselves congregate to...do whatever impersonators do.
Michael accepts the proposal, and when they arrive at the majestic, fog-swathed location (via rowboat), he meets an entire commune of people living as famous figures. There's the Pope, the Three Stooges, Madonna, the Queen of England, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn's husband Charlie Chaplin (French actor Denis Lavant), her daughter Shirley Temple (newcomer Esme Creed-Miles), and more. All of the characters go by and are called the names of their celebrity counterparts in the film, so there's no sense in saying that each is playing a role. They've all gathered to build a stage and put on spectacular, collaborative shows for an audience that may not even exist. The setting and events seem otherworldly and absurd, made all the more perplexing because they're inhabited by individuals pulled from popular culture. It's like a hippie acid trip populated by well-known faces of the twentieth century.
Running parallel to that narrative is a story about a convent of nuns deep in the jungles of Latin America who renew their faith in God when they discover that they can leap out of airplanes - sans parachutes - and land unscathed. Renowned auteur Werner Herzog makes a brilliantly hilarious appearance as the sisters' priest/pilot, who discovers their impossible abilities when one of them accidentally falls out of his private jet during a routine food drop over a needy nearby village and lives. The meaning and/or connection of the nun plot line to the rest of the movie is left entirely up to interpretation, but that should be expected from a film about a cult of impersonators living on a mountain top. Viewers will either be infuriated by the film's lack of cohesion, or embrace it as a legitimate artistic choice.
The highly controversial Korine (who also helmed Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, and wrote the scripts for Larry Clark's Kids and Ken Park) said in an interview that the side story was inspired by one of his dreams. His movie is dreamlike, alright. The random haphazardness of its jigsaw structure and its disturbing beauty are Lynchian in nature, reminiscent of the director's Mulholland Drive (right down to a scene with a red curtain and a flickering spotlight). Yet unlike David Lynch, and unlike Korine's previous work, Mister Lonely is neither dark nor foreboding. None of its characters appear to have any malicious intentions beyond the occasional selfish act. It's whimsical, funny, and happy and any discomfort arises only from the unfamiliarity of its many oddities. I'd describe it as Tim Burton's Big Fish for the even more art-house crowd.
The cinematography by Marcel Zyskind (who also shot Michael Winterbottom's Angelina Jolie vehicle A Might Heart from last year) is nothing less than breathtaking, and it steers the whole picture. There is little to take away from Mister Lonely as a text aside from it being a hallucinatory meditation on finding ones self, sprinkled with miraculous goings-on. It is understood that these people – Michael, in particular - cannot find peace with their own identities, so they take on those of others (most even display their subject's distinctive behaviors). There are also biblical references, from the nuns to the slaughtering of a herd of sheep, but none of it is so poignant as to cause any deep emotional response. It's the look of the film that achieves that, through vibrant color, handsome scenery, and exquisite composition. About halfway through, I gave up trying to decide what Mister Lonely was attempting to tell me, and reveled in what it was showing me. I submitted, drank the Kool-Aid, and joined the cult.