Michael Jackson meet-cutes Marilyn Monroe on the streets of Paris and goes off to live with her, Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple in a seaside Scottish castle. No, it’s not the latest season of “The Surreal Life,” but rather “Mister Lonely,” the third self-conscious cult film from writer-director Harmony Korine. Less outre than “Gummo” and “Julien Donkey-Boy,” Korine’s most lavishly produced pic to date begins as a sweet-tempered tale of social misfits-turned-celebrity impersonators, but falls short of its ambition to say something meaningful about the obsessive nature of celebrity culture. Title would seem an accurate harbinger of pic’s commercial future.
Despite the lack of an obvious physical resemblance, Mexican thesp Diego Luna makes a convincing sell as pic’s Jackson impersonator, who, in a memorable opening shot, rides an all-terrain vehicle around an empty racetrack while decked out in dark shades, surgical mask and high white socks, towing a winged-monkey plush toy behind him. (All the while, the titular Bobby Vinton recording plays on the soundtrack.) Luna also proves adept at mimicking the gloved one’s signature dance moves, which he practices in his apartment and then performs for passersby on the Champs-Elysees.
When the faux Jackson’s agent (played by French director Leos Carax) sends him to perform at a nursing home, he encounters Monroe (Samantha Morton, costumed in the requisite “Seven Year Itch” white dress), who tells him about the commune she lives in with a dozen or so other impersonators (including James Dean, Abe Lincoln and the Three Stooges). Soon, pic’s action switches to there, though not before Korine takes time out for a couple of sequences set in an unidentified jungle region where a priest (Werner Herzog) and a group of nuns appear to be running some sort of missionary aid organization.
Just what — if anything — the Herzog/jungle scenes have to do with the rest of “Mister Lonely” is never made clear, though they do continue to pop up periodically throughout the narrative and ultimately provide for one of pic’s most memorable images: a literal “flying nun” who miraculously manages to survive her unplanned earthly plummet.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch — or rather, the living wax museum — Michael, Marilyn and the gang prepare to stage an old-fashioned vaudeville-style revue, and the outbreak of a fatal illness among the commune’s sheep population serves as an obvious metaphor for the larger troubles that await this once-idyllic Shangri-la. Ultimately, pic all too predictably devolves into a routine stranger-in-a-strange-land story about how Jackson’s arrival on this island of lost celebrity souls sparks latent jealousies and tensions among the other denizens.
“Mister Lonely” gets by for a while on the quirkiness of its premise, the commitment of its performers (especially Luna and Morton) and Korine’s enjoyably eccentric casting instincts (like reteaming “Performance” co-stars James Fox and Anita Pallenberg as Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth II). It’s also never less than a handsome film to look at, thanks to the accomplished widescreen cinematography of longtime Michael Winterbottom collaborator Marcel Zyskind, marking a complete 180 from the Dogma-influenced aesthetics of “Julien Donkey-Boy.” But Korine runs out of story ideas long before pic reaches the end of its padded, nearly two-hour running time.