It takes a special weirdo to empathize with Michael Jackson's discontent. It takes an extra-special one to construct an entire film around Diego Luna as a Jackson impersonator. Luckily, the notorious Harmony Korine, writer of "Kids," director of "Gummo," is just such a weirdo. He begins his baleful, dreamy "Mister Lonely" with a slow-motion shot of a boy on a mini-moped. The bike eases around a racetrack bend while the Bobby Vinton song of the film's title washes over the soundtrack. Eventually, it's obvious something strange is up. Those black high-waters, that red button-down shirt, the armband, the surgical face mask: It's not a biker; it's Michael.
The closer the bike gets to us, the clearer it becomes that we are in the hands of a man whose ZIP code is up in the ionosphere. Then Samantha Morton shimmies onto the premises as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who invites Luna to move into the lush Scottish commune she shares with a small, flickering constellation of imposter stars, and the movie establishes its own address somewhere in Wonderland, where a version of Michael Jackson doubles as a version of Alice.
The mansion-mates include a profane Abe Lincoln (Richard Strange), a doddering pope (James Fox), his wife, the Queen of England (Anita Pallenberg), a rumpled Madonna (Melita Morgan), one Buckwheat (Michael-Joel Stuart), one Sammy Davis Jr. (Jason Pennycooke), a Little Red Riding Hood (Rachel Korine, the filmmaker's wife), and a James Dean (Joseph Morgan). The Three Stooges are here. And Marilyn has a daughter (Esme Creed-Miles) named Shirley Temple, and her husband (Denis Lavant) is a corpse-like Charlie Chaplin courtesy of Adolf Hitler.
The circus you fear Korine is making never comes to town. Korine wrote "Mister Lonely" with his brother Avi, and these impersonators are like refractions of the iconic pop-history stars who live in a child's imagination brought gently down to earth. The impersonators tend to the chickens (well, Buckwheat does). They cook meals. They prepare for a talent show. They watch in sadness as the lambs on their farm are put down. With all respect to VH1, this is the surreal life.
Michael and Marilyn have a brief conversation about when they knew they wanted to be someone else. Otherwise, Korine moves past matters of everyday identity and ruminates on the nature of belief. To underscore this, Korine devotes the movie's other quarters to Werner Herzog as a humanitarian priest whose nuns believe they can fly. The sight of women of God free-falling through the sky is a marvelous absurdity. (So is the idea of Herzog as a holy humanitarian.) The first nun to experience this airborne sensation and the apparent indestructibility that follows it rhapsodizes about the divinity of her flight. She could go to heaven. She could go to the X Games. It's a tough call.
Korine's previous two movies - "Gummo" (1997) and "Julien Donkey-Boy" (1999) - were carnivals of the unhappy, unseemly, and unsightly. You could have called him an exploiter of marginal people and marginal circumstances (people have, in fact). But that always seemed to overlook Korine's own marginality. He wasn't mocking ugliness or claiming to find beauty where none was possible - although, paradoxically, his movies have their beautiful moments (Marcel Zyskind's photography in "Mister Lonely" is museum-quality stuff). The relative child he was 10 years ago (Korine is 35 now) is ready to ask more contemplative questions - if not of this life, then the next.
In its slightly comical, somewhat mordant, and completely ambient way, "Mister Lonely" wonders about the perils of idol worship, the way people can hand their entire selves over to a religion, be it Catholicism or celebrity. The movie's commune passes as a sort of reincarnation rectory. Every once in a while the title of one of Jackson's hits glides across the screen. One is reflective ("Man in the Mirror"). Another is reassuring ("You Are Not Alone"). And you're moved by the wounded soul Korine sees in Jackson's freak - in all of the freaks in this movie. The director is even wrestling with his own impersonations - Terrence Malick, the Danes of Dogma 95, Herzog - just to destroy a few in the final sequences of this film. Korine is finding his way toward artistic greatness by searching his soul. It's possible that the man in the mirror is him.