You could call Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely a comeback, but that would imply the return was anticipated, or that it heralds a return to form. I'm not sure either description applies. Mister Lonely is just as unconventional, by Hollywood standards, as his earlier films, if markedly less pugnacious.
In his latest picture, Korine, who is best known for his screenplay Kids (written in a matter of weeks at the tender age of 22) and the experimental provocations of Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, seems to be working through some of the things he went through as wunderkind-turned-washout, taking on the desire to be somebody else and faith in the impossible as themes and manifesting them in his singular, surreal style.
Mister Lonely is as plotless and meandering as Korine's other movies, but it's a lot more plaintive, sweet and reflexive. Two plots with no apparent connection to each other intertwine. In the main story, a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) living a lonely life in Paris meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) while performing at a nursing home. Marilyn invites Michael to join the commune for impersonators in the Scottish Highlands where she lives with, among others, her husband, Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), and her daughter, Shirley Temple (Esme Creed-Miles). Michael agrees mainly because he has fallen in love with Marilyn, and the two of them set out for Scotland.
Meanwhile, at a Catholic mission in Central America, a nun falls out of an airplane and discovers by accident that she can land safely, as if wearing a parachute. When the priest heading the mission (an ever-enthusiastic Werner Herzog) discovers this, he encourages all the nuns to try their hands at the miracle. Soon, the sisters are popping wheelies at 10,000 feet and doing synchronized flying routines until, eventually, the miracle is recognized by the Vatican and they're all invited to come meet the pope.
Korine's metaphors may be oblique, but they're not exactly subtle. Things are far from ideal at the commune, where an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease forces its residents to slaughter their sheep, and where a disastrous theatrical performance leads to an unexpected tragedy. The obvious parallels are between the young Korine and the trusting, daredevil nuns, or between what happens to them when they're summoned by the pope and what happened to the young director when Hollywood beckoned. Same goes for the misunderstood hero, whose longing to escape his life leads him to take on someone else's identity rather than live it. And what a complicated alter ego it is.
Characters this symbolic don't exactly invite emotional involvement. Nor do stories this indirect command sustained attention. But there's something so ineffably sad about them that you can't help but be pulled in somehow. The nuns' story, in particular, has a straightforward, realistic quality that somehow turns it from morality fable to something immediate and heartbreaking. And Luna and Morton are enormously likable and engrossing as two people choosing to live their lives as the saddest characters in the pop-culture pantheon. As for the scenes in the commune, though, I found myself drifting in and out of attention. Yet, while it's full of arresting, indelible images, Mister Lonely remains mostly on the level of abstraction. You get it, but you don't always feel it.
Carina Chocano writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Watch a preview of Mister Lonely at baltimoresun.com/lonely
(IFC) Starring Diego Luna, Samantha Morton, Werner Herzog. Directed by Harmony Korine. Unrated. Time 112 minutes.