Art-house terrorist Harmony Korine may someday make a great film, if his raw talent ever overtakes his pretensions, but until that blessed day we'll have to muddle through ambitiously flawed works like Mister Lonely. As the great James Brown said, "Nothing beats a try but a fail," and in this case Mr. Korine has produced a lyrical, maddeningly inconsistent curio that could have been so much more.
Even devout haters will admit that the premise is tantalizing: A community of whacked-out celeb impersonators form a community in a remote Scottish enclave, and dream of putting on the world's greatest show. Our main faker is Michael (Diego Luna), a cipher who's scratching out a living playing the King of Pop for spare change, until he meets a fetching Marilyn Monroe (the splendid Samantha Morton) look-alike on the streets of Paris, who invites him to join her "family" and answer a higher calling. Among this bizarre fiefdom of outcasts are stand-ins for Abraham Lincoln, the pope, Queen Elizabeth (one-time Rolling Stones muse Anita Pallenberg), Madonna, Sammy Davis Jr., and Marilyn's abusive husband Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant) who's more of a great dictator than a little tramp. Predictably, romantic tensions develop, as Michael and Marilyn's mutual attraction gives them something to cling to, as their respective tethers to reality continue to fray.
Meanwhile, there's a subplot from a seemingly unrelated movie, featuring prickly director Werner Herzog as missionary priest leading a pack of divine nuns who skydive without parachutes. These interludes are jarring, and induce head-scratching fits so strong they require delousing, but at least they are lovely to look at. Pretty much everything in Mister Lonely is visual treat, with Marcel Zyskind's fluid camera work adding grace to the compositions, and giving wings to Korine's weird inventions.
There are brilliant moments; a bit of flirtation between the leads involving a strawberry is as good as anything on the big screen in recent memory. Yet for every second of clarity or glimmer of universal truth there's five minutes of tedium or inside jokes that seem attuned solely to the director's personal amusement, or a dash of weirdness for weirdness' sake. This outburst of whimsy is rather unexpected from a guy who created such sordid, provocative and grueling pictures like Kids and Gummo, but it's a mostly pleasant surprise, since here the element of cruelty is cut with sweetness. Fittingly, it took a movie about loss of identity for Harmony to start to find himself, now if only he'd stop impersonating a great director and simply be one.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.