Not His Worst

Directed by Harmony Korine
Written by Avi Korine and Harmony Korine
Starring Diego Luna, Samantha Morton, Werner Herzog, James Fox

Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, from a screenplay by Mr. Korine and his brother, Avi, is a more benign if comparatively overlong avant-garde enterprise than we have recently been accustomed to getting from Mr. Korine. That is to say, no blow jobs, no cat-killing, no pissing, no asphyxia-induced orgasms, no teenage violence. When he was 22, Mr. Korine wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), with its malignantly depressing 24-hour tour of New York City’s AIDS-infected, sex-crazed, booze-belting teens. He went on to write and direct Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey Boy (1999), the former described by some mainline critics as the worst movie ever made, and the latter becoming the first American movie to officially adopt the Danish Dogma 95. Nonetheless, Mr. Korine can be credited with launching the careers of two new screen personalities, Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson.

By now you may have gathered that I am not about to write a rave review for Mister Lonely, Mr. Korine’s first film since his self-imposed, near-decade-long exile in Paris. Nor am I going to dismiss it out of hand simply because, as Hermann Göring might have said, whenever I hear the term “avant-garde” applied to the cinema, I want to reach for my revolver. Yet, as the recent Abel Gance revival on Turner Classics demonstrates, there is nothing new under the sun on either side of the movie camera.

In his Director’s Notes, Mr. Korine traces the genesis of Mister Lonely to his “Thinking Images”: “I basically started thinking in terms of images that really have nothing to do with anything. Just single images. I started dreaming about nuns flying out of airplanes and praying all the way down and surviving. Then I started to fixate upon specific images and characters. One of them was the idea of a Michael Jackson impersonator walking the streets of Paris. I had these different images although they didn’t have anything to do with one another. But I knew there was something I was trying to get out, a unified idea, but I wasn’t sure how to say it.”

Mr. Korine and his brother finally found a way to translate the director’s random images into a semi-coherent narrative about a colony of impersonators forming a commune in a castle in the Scottish highlands, and somehow performing their specialties in a poorly attended concert in an empty theater near the commune. But hope springs eternal for even the most habitually impoverished entertainers.

The picture is flooded with semi-celebrities impersonating more famous celebrities. The Mexican actor Diego Luna impersonates Michael Jackson, and is actually seen strutting his stuff on a Paris street where he runs into a Marilyn Monroe impersonator played by Samantha Morton. Her husband turns out to be Charlie Chaplin impersonated by Denis Lavant. “Marilyn” persuades “Michael” to fly to Scotland with her to join the other members of the commune.

The other impersonators in the commune, with their celebrity models, are James Fox (the Pope); Melita Morgan (Madonna); Anita Pallenberg (the Queen); Rachel Korine (Little Red Riding Hood); Richard Strange (Abe Lincoln); Michael Joel Stuart (Buckwheat); Esme Creed-Miles (Shirley Temple); Mal Whiteley, Daniel Rovai, and Nigel Cooper as the Three Stooges (Larry, Moe, Curly); Joseph Morgan (James Dean); Jason Pennycooke (Sammy Davis Jr.); and, finally, Werner Herzog as Father Umbrillo, who flies the nuns (Camille De Pazzis and Britta Gartner) to their sky-diving destinations. David Blaine plays Father Umbrillo’s priestly subordinate. Lalid Afkir plays someone called Habid in the credits, and I am not sure if either is a celebrity.

The high point of the film, I suppose, is the spectacle of all the impersonators dancing sequentially to the strains of Irving Berlin’s Astaire-Rogers classic “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.” Needless to say, I much preferred Astaire-Rogers, but that is just the hopeless classicist in me. Anyway, I didn’t mind Mr. Korine’s conceits, but I thought that at 112 minutes the movie dragged somewhat, whereas Mr. Korine’s earlier projects never ran longer than 90-plus minutes. The only memorable line for me was Marilyn Monroe’s suggestion that her husband, the foul-mouthed Chaplin figure, was closer to Hitler than to Chaplin.

I will admit that Mr. Korine knows more than his share of interesting people, notably Werner Herzog and Leos Carax, a firebrand film director, who plays the psychiatrist of “Michael Jackson.”

And, oops, I almost overlooked Mr. Korine’s screenwriting gig for Larry Clark’s Ken Park in 2002. The story is that Mr. Korine wrote the screenplay back around the time of Kids, but then Mr. Clark and Mr. Korine had a falling-out, leading to Mr. Korine’s seizing the directorial reins for Gummo. Anyway, from what I’ve read, Mr. Korine’s life is more engrossing than any of his films.

I will end with the faint praise of Mister Lonely as the least offensive of the works in the Korine canon.

Not His Worst