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Photograph by O'South
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH MICHAEL : A Monroe imitator (Samantha Morton) befriends a Jacko impersonator (Diego Luna) in 'Mister Lonely.'

Only the Lonely

Harmony Korine's 'Mister Lonely' finds love and discord in the world of celebrity impersonators.

By Richard von Busack

Sometimes I used to see this character lingering outside a touristy bar on Powell Street in San Francisco as a volunteer doorman. He was a Chaplin impersonator with a serious case of five-o'clock shadow under his pancake makeup. And he covered the front of his black suit with oversize badges, to destroy whatever illusion of Chaplinism he had gotten together. He had obviously been doing this for many years. Sometime during his life, an inner voice commanded him to dress up like the Little Tramp and entertain the tourists.

He missed his chance to be in Mister Lonely, a fictional film about those people who have chosen to become celebrity impersonators. The bizarre Harmony Korine proves that he survived having his stock first inflated, then dumped, by The New York Times. The Gray Lady described his script for Kids as "a wake-up call to the world"--this, as Jonathan Rosenbaum commented, whether or not Malaysian rice farmers needed to know about the plight of underage skateboarders in Manhattan. And then the powers-that-be boomeranged and called his directorial debut, Gummo, the worst movie of the year. Then came the vast improvement of Julien Donkey-Boy, followed by a long silence.

There is a reverie sequence in Mister Lonely when a homely Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant) is sitting shirtless and alone, muttering, "How long ... 34, 35 ... my life, nothing ... it doesn't count for nothing." This film represents Korine's bouncing back after coming out of "a dark place," he says in the press notes.

Once again, the born-in-Bolinas director broods over the compulsion to perform. Throughout his work, we see an obsession with showbiz-manqué. His first movie was named after the talentless member of the Marx brothers. And Mister Lonely shows us celebrity impersonators failing first as sheep ranchers and then as little-theater operators.

In Paris, a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) struts his stuff under the plane trees, capturing neither money nor attention. His agent books "Michael" in an old-folks home, where he tries to rouse a reaction from a roomful of goners. But at the home, Michael meets Marilyn (Samantha Morton), an American Marilyn Monroe impersonator.

Luna makes a good Jackson; he is the wondering, forlorn type that looks like he needs a mother's touch. Morton, by contrast, never quite looks right; she doesn't have that carefully adopted effervescence of the actress, but that may be the point. Marilyn is in the seventh and itchiest year of her marriage to the aforementioned faux-Chaplin. Now she and her husband have started a sheep-raising commune in the Scottish highlands, intending it as a place where all celebrity-impersonating misfits can find love and appreciation.

What follows is the kind of love triangle that wracks almost all communes. If there is some sort of autobiography in all of Korine's movies, this seems like a particularly acute self-revelation; you can see what goes on in the power plays of this commune and think, "Yeah, change the names, get rid of the makeup, and this story looks like something that would have happened in Bolinas in the 1970s." While Charlie throws his weight around, the real mover on the farm is Abraham Lincoln (Richard Strange), the profane straw boss. He has cause for swearing when someone puts the fake Three Stooges to work painting the little theater. As tensions increase, Charlie commits a passive-aggressive act that destroys Michael Jackson's hopes for love.

Korine cuts to a sequence about a group of Panamanian nuns obedient to a Bavarian priest (Werner Herzog). During a drop of supplies into a remote village, one nun falls out of the plane and is saved from certain death by prayer. Moved by her example, the sisters in her order also decide to take literal leaps of faith. This ritual of holy skydiving counts as a kind of showbiz. No matter how it turns out, it's still out of joint with the rest of the film.

Marcel Zyskind's cinematography marks a new visual high for Korine. He has left the mossy squalor of Gummo and the goldenrod blur of Dogme digital for southern beaches and steep green hills. And the Sun City Girls soundtrack holds this strange film together, along with some vintage folk.

This is Korine's first film where he doesn't seem like he is lingering in adolescence. His studious eclecticism sometimes leads to dead ends. At one more shot of one of the world's misfits wandering and muttering, the phrase "self-indulgent" comes to mind, only to be dismissed by the thought that it's sure better to be self-indulgent than studio-indulgent. I wonder how Korine would do making a Western, or some other tale about the old weird America?

Movie Times MISTER LONELY (Unrated; 112 min.), directed by Harmony Korine, written by Avi Korine and Harmony Korine and starring Diego Luna, opens July 11 at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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