what i watched last week
5/10 movies

by request: mister lonely (harmony korine, 2007)

This is an odd request from my nephew Sean. A couple of months ago, while discussing films from 1999, I noted that “my least-favorite is Julien Donkey-Boy.” That barely states the case … Julien Donkey-Boy is one of my least-favorite films of all time, 1999 or otherwise (1/10). Since I also had a lot of problems with Kids, which Korine wrote, I stuck Korine in the “don’t like him, not going to waste my time” file. But in the comments for that post, Sean wrote, “I'd like to request your least least-favorite Harmony Korine movie.” I knew I wasn’t going to re-watch Julien Donkey-Boy, but I said maybe I’d give Korine another try. In a later chat, Sean told me he liked Mister Lonely, so I stuck it on my request list, and checked it out yesterday.

Let me try to say something nice about Mister Lonely. There are some beautifully-shot scenes, including the sky-diving nuns. Korine seems to like his characters … the film lacks the misanthropy I expected. The concept (a community of celebrity impersonators) is interesting, and like I said, Korine does not look down on the people … he is “on their side”, so to speak.

But … the movie is largely incoherent, which butts up against my taste preferences … I know there are people who don’t care about that stuff, people who like it when an artist openly allows his or her vision to explode on the screen. Me? If I’m confronted with a narrative that is confusing at best and chaotic at worse, I need to be overwhelmed by the artistic vision or I’m gonna get grouchy. Mister Lonely has two … well, you can’t exactly call them plotlines … anyway, there’s the community of impersonators, and there’s a group of nuns under the command of Werner Herzog. I have no idea how these two are connected. I’m sure fans of the movie can explain it, or maybe they’d just say I’m wrong for trying to connect the parts. But I found it stupid.

And while I liked the premise of a community of impersonators, that premise goes nowhere. I suppose you could point to what happens to “Marilyn Monroe” as a commentary on the lives of impersonators, but it didn’t connect with me. You meet a character, you are told what celebrity they are impersonating, and with that, you know everything. Oh, “Abraham Lincoln” says fuck a lot, but he’s Abe Lincoln nonetheless. Again, I suppose one could argue that Korine is making a point here, that if you decide to impersonate a celebrity, you are stuck in a single reference point, but whether that is the case (I have no idea if it is) matters less than the fact that the characters are uninteresting once you meet them. “Madonna” and “Buckwheat” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are never more than what you would expect. After a while, it gets boring.

There are a couple of exceptions. One is trivial: James Fox is “The Pope”, and Anita Pallenberg is “The Queen”. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy writing that sentence. They even have a brief scene in bed together. But their presence is treated like an in-joke. Korine draws no attention to it … more power to him, I guess, at least it’s subtle … but there is no reason for them being in the movie except for giving Performance fans like myself a reason to wet our pants. As my mind wandered during the many boring parts, I found myself thinking about Fox and Pallenberg … what did they talk about when the cameras weren’t rolling? It was fun watching “The Queen” smoke cigarettes, but in the end, it was much ado about nothing.

In the middle of all of this, there is a standout performance by Samantha Morton as “Marilyn Monroe”. Morton turns Monroe into an actual person. We see the woman behind the impersonation, and we feel her heartache and despair. She is far and away the best reason to watch Mister Lonely. (In contrast, the fine actor Diego Luna as “Michael Jackson” is mostly a vacuum sucking the life out of every scene he is in. It’s only fair to note, though, that when he breaks into his impersonation of Michael dancing for a few brief moments, he and the movie catch fire. It never lasts too long. Another one of those items that Korine may have intended as a Big Statement, one that I didn’t “get”.)

It’s not much of a compliment to say I never felt like vomiting while watching Mister Lonely, but that’s a step up from how I felt about Julien Donkey-Boy. I can’t say I was disappointed when I had such low expectations to begin with. But neither can I say I thought this was a good movie. 5/10. For a Samantha Morton movie I liked, check out Minority Report. For a Diego Luna movie I loved, there’s Y tu mamá también.

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