Harmony Korine, like Matthew Barney, is one of the more astounding creators of indelible cinematic images of his filmmaking generation. And, also like Barney, Korine can't craft a coherent or even effective film language to save his life. Mister Lonely, Korine's new movie and his first since 1999's surprisingly effective Julien Donkey-Boy, moves with the grace and fathomless humanity that is Korine's natural filmmaking brio, but it doesn't tell a story or even set a mood as much as it collides amazing moments together as if that will be enough.
Lonely follows, and perhaps is named for, a Paris-based Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna, almost unrecognizable in his King of Pop incognito) who plies his trade on the streets. Luna has the moves down pat, iconic choreography from any number of Jackson videos and televised appearances, but you never really get to know who the man behind the mask is.
You sense that's part of what Korine may be going for, the superficial fog of fame, but such thematic lucidity is discarded in favor of visual panache. "Michael" meets another celebrity impersonator, Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton, who should be the only actress allowed to do Monroe on screen from here on out), who tells him about a fanciful place where others like them live. And so begins "Michael's" journey to "Marilyn's" own private Neverland, an estate in Scotland where she lives with her husband, "Charlie Chaplin" (Denis Lavant), and a coterie of other celebrity impersonators--the "Pope" (James Fox), "Madonna" (Melita Morgan), "Sammy Davis Jr." (Jason Pennycooke), "Abraham Lincoln" (Richard Strange), and in one of Korine's ingenious strokes, Anita Pallenberg as the "Queen of England." There, everybody enjoys a three-ring life of carefree re-enactment, living in a communelike atmosphere that feels more Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie than utopian Oneida.
Doesn't really matter, though, because interspersed into this quasi-story is another quasi-story in which a missionary priest (Werner Herzog) and a sect of nuns deliver food to indigenous populations by dropping it out of an airplane. Herzog the actor is one of those cinematic treats that make whatever movie he's in better--narrative sense or thematic point be damned--and once again every time he's on screen you're riveted by the sheer madness of what's going on.
And that is, for good and ill, the lasting enigma of Mister Lonely as a movie experience. You're never really drawn into its universe, but moments of absurdist visual poetry--a nun free-falling through the sky with her hands prayer-clasped in front of her, Luna's Michael Jackson riding a toy motorcycle, just witnessing the Buñuelian dinner tableaux of Madonna, Shirley Temple, Abe Lincoln, and Buckwheat seated together--cling to the retina the way very, very few movies do. It's a mess, but it's a mess you can't forget.