A man in a Michael Jackson outfit rides hunched over the tiny frame of a clown bike. The background is a go-cart 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."
On its own, 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 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, and, not least of all, the elements of surprise and originality.
Mister Lonely succeeds at few of the things movies routinely do, even as it pulls off some 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 Diego Luna, who brings a wide-eyed sweetness to his manchild-naïf role (and does a mean moonwalk to boot). 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?"
As a filmmaker, Korine — who made an instant sensation 13 years ago as the teenage author of the Kids screenplay, and followed it up with some Andy Kaufman-esque mindfuck antics — combines an installation artist's eye with a Catskills comic's affection for the threadbare fringes of showbiz. Like his earlier films, Mister Lonely stands or falls on every single self-contained scene.
And it often falls. 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, has a lingering plaintiveness that not even its maker may be able to explain.