A man in a Michael Jackson outfit — red shirt, black jeans, white face mask — rides hunched over the tiny frame of a clown bike. Jutting out to his side, attached by a wire, is a stuffed monkey puppet with angel wings. The background is a nondescript go-kart track lined with brightly colored tires, the sky above a billowing blue haze. Time slows to a crawl as the bike circles toward the camera. All is silent save for Bobby Vinton's bathetic croon over a featherbed of strings: "Lone-leee ... I'm Mister Lone-leeee ... "
A recap for those keeping score of outré elements: Michael Jackson costume. Clown bike. Monkey puppet. The Polish Prince. The scene should ooze flip-and-curdled — a forest of twee guaranteed to leave the viewer muttering about those goddamn facetious hipsters. But it doesn't. The song's majestic self-pity is undercut by the goofiness of the details, leaving only the spell of the music's dreamy abundance. The exquisite slow motion ("I'm just a soldier ...") suspends the bike and its rider (" ... a lo-hoh-nely sollllldier ... ") in a languid, extended instant, speeding (" ... away from home ... ") yet almost still (" ... through no wish of my own"). At the end of its wire, the monkey angel leaps and strains at its tether, its stubby wings feeling for the sky. The image exudes a kind of deadpan surrealist humor, sure — but also poignancy, a wistfully recalled innocence, a fluky free spirit.
As a stand-alone, this three-minute shot constitutes a gorgeous short film. As the opening sequence of Mister Lonely — the third feature by Harmony Korine, once the reigning Man You Love to Hate of American indie cinema — it advances the plot not a frame, tells us next to nothing about the character, and (from a narrative standpoint) has no impact whatsoever on the film that follows. And yet, as a self-contained unit, the scene offers mood, charm, the bittersweet loveliness of that floating slow motion, the striking image of man and monkey racing together toward some transcendent offscreen finish line — and not least of all, the elements of surprise and originality.
Which is to say that Mister Lonely — a plangent fable of faith, childhood's end, and the search for artistic identity — succeeds at few of the things movies routinely do, even as it pulls off other things most movies never try. The man on the cycle is Michael, a Parisian street performer living a lonesome life as a Michael Jackson impersonator; he's played by the winning Diego Luna, who brings a wide-eyed sweetness to his manchild-naif role (and does a mean moonwalk to boot). Spotted exhorting the wheelchair-bound patients in a nursing home ("Live forever! Don't die!"), he's summoned by a Marilyn Monroe look-alike (a luminous Samantha Morton) to a commune in the Scottish Highlands "only for people like us ... where everyone is famous, and no one ages."
What he finds is a castle populated by celebrity impersonators from all catwalks of life — a fake pope, a fake Queen Elizabeth, fake Sammy Davis Jr.'s and Three Stooges and Buckwheats, even a fake paragon of presidential virtue ("I'm Abe fuckin' Lincoln!"). Their counterpoint a world away — in a parallel plot that never intersects — is a group of indistinguishable unknowns whose talent is both bizarre and singular: a Latin American convent of flying nuns, whose father-pilot is none other than Werner Herzog. "How is it possible that a nun can fly?" Herzog asks with an admirably straight-faced delivery. "Who are we to doubt such miracles?"
That question, in its deliberate naiveté, is as much a provocation as the assaultive shtick in 1997's Gummo, Korine's first feature as writer-director. As a filmmaker, Korine — who made an instant sensation 13 years ago as the teenage author of the Kids screenplay, and earned the undying enmity of the entertainment press with his subsequent Andy Kaufmanesque mindfuck antics — combines an installation artist's eye (and patience for duration) with a Catskills comic's affection for the threadbare fringes of showbiz. Co-written with his brother Avi, Mister Lonely is startlingly straightforward compared to his underrated 1999 Dogme feature Julien Donkey-Boy, which pushed its digital graininess to severe and often beautiful effect. Like his earlier films, though, it stands or falls on each single, self-contained scene.
And it falls, often. As a metaphor for artistic development, a celebrity impersonator who must ditch his costume and go his own way is a perilously maudlin conceit, especially if you read him as the director's stand-in. Given his prankster rep, Korine's biggest challenge to an already skeptical audience is the movie's sleeve-hearted sincerity — never more flabbergasting than when a heartwarming Iris DeMent country ballad is warbled by a chorus of eggs.
But letting a movie keep its intimations of chaos — letting a scene meander in search of a tone, letting an image last beyond its expected end, allowing digressions for their own sake — sometimes yields moments of wonder. The movie's opening shot, for example, or Gummo's magical little scene of kids smooching in a rain-swept above-ground pool — this unmoored imagery has a lingering plaintiveness that not even its maker may be able to explain. Movies tell the same stories over and over, but I know of only one that evokes mourned innocence in just a three-minute shot of a clown bike. Harmony Korine may be finding his gift as the ringmaster of these barbed, indelible images. But as the nuns' haunting finale shows, embracing your talent is no guarantee of a happy ending.