A solitary Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris, Diego Luna’s character (who is referred to only as “Michael”, as if defined entirely through his assumed identity) struggles both financially – when he’s not performing for spare change on the streets, he’s playing retirement homes – and socially – his inability to speak French and his natural timidity significantly limit his contacts – until he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) who whisks him off to join her community of celebrity look-alikes in the Scottish Highlands. As in any congregation of outcasts, these impersonators rally ‘round their difference, creating an atmosphere of open acceptance – reflected in the enthusiastic reception accorded the newly arrived Michael – if not quite warm camaraderie. But a community who defines themselves by their isolation from the rest of society – and the fantasy nature of their existence is made clear by the fact that the impersonators are nearly always in character – inevitably lives under quite a severe strain.
And rather than create a workable alternative community, drafting a superior mode of living from an acknowledgement of the shortcomings of the society they’ve abandoned, the community in Mister Lonely seems founded on a denial of the reality principle. But that principle comes back with a vengeance, first symbolically, in a sheep blight which forces the congregation (in the persons of Larry, Moe and Curly) to euthanize its flock, then through the same petty jealousies that seem to pop up in any form of social organization, and finally in the indifference of the outside public, who the impersonators, like any artists, find they have need of after all, if only as an audience. The film’s central conflict crops up when Michael and Marilyn get a little too close for the liking of the latter’s jealous Charlie Chaplin-impersonating husband (the great Denis Lavant, largely wasted here) who retaliates by deliberately sabotaging his wife’s big moment, failing to wake her from her sunbath, thus ensuring she appears horribly burned when the impersonators stage their talent show.
This last event is probably the film’s highlight, even if director Harmony Korine scarcely gives his talent enough screen-time to shine. If impersonating famous characters marks these people as woefully out of place in real life (and more than a little irritating to the film’s audience), then here they are very much in their element. Lavant, in particular stands out, doing a Chaplin routine involving a sagging tight rope that provides one of the film’s few laughs. But after the performance comes a heartbreaking cut to the audience, five or six people seated on wooden chairs, bathed in the infrared glow of the stage lights and clapping lamely. Their self-worth reflected in their reception, the performers walk away disheartened, before low spirits give way to the film’s inevitable tragedy and Michael leaves to seek for his identity in another place and under a new guise.
In fact, much of what’s interesting in the film occurs in this final segment, from the doomed performance through Michael’s eventual return to Paris, in which, abandoning the Jackson look, he loses himself in a street parade, seeking a renewed sense of self in the anonymity of the indifferent crowd. For the rest, Korine seems principally interested in perpetuating a self-consciously offbeat vibe that tends more often than not toward an unpalatable preciosity. Even the film’s wonderfully delicate conclusion can’t entirely avoid this tendency, as Michael’s final path is determined by a conversation with a group of painted eggs which come to life with the faces of the impersonators in order to dispense advice. And they sing too.
Actually Korine’s method is classic surrealist juxtaposition, combining incongruous elements in unexpected ways. But while these combinations may indeed be unexpected, they’re certainly far from being inspired. The last thing we need is another instance of the elderly acting foolishly youthful, but that’s what we get when Michael performs his act for a group of old-folks, the audience clapping their hands in their wheelchairs, while the radio blares something about “pussy” and Diego Luna grabs his crotch. Then there’s the assortment of impersonators, a collection of offbeat types who, when placed together in one room, overwhelm with their sheer accumulation of quirk. Abraham Lincoln drops the word “fuck” into every sentence, while the aforementioned Buckwheat rides around on an undersized horse talking something about the correlation between chicken breasts and woman’s breasts.
And that doesn’t even get to the film’s subplot, an unrelated bit about flying nuns that gives Korine a chance to bring in one more found object into his surrealist stew, film director Werner Herzog, who plays the commanding priest with his typically wry gusto. Actually, despite having nothing to do with the film’s main thrust, the sequences with the nuns are rather more successful than much of the rest of the work, the director achieving some of his happier visual moments when the sisters, miniature figures set against a sky flecked with jet-exhaust, float around in delirious circles. But while the film has an appealing looseness, which makes possible the introduction of such an incompatible narrative thread, it’s probably a mistake for the director to allow himself such a free hand. Written in tandem with his brother, Avi, Korine’s film doesn’t so much get away from him as allow him to indulge some unfortunate tendencies - an addiction to quirk, a lack of proper discernment - which may be, finally, intrinsic to his art. That he’s nearly able to pull everything together at the end is, no doubt impressive, but given that the nature of the project seems geared specifically toward those propensities that Korine should probably be trying to downplay, if not avoid entirely, Mister Lonely never really had much of a chance to begin with.