Mister Lonely (2007) is a film by Harmony Korine, who penned the controversial Kids before writing and directing the cult movies Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy. Korine’s work has divided both critics and audiences.
My interest in Mister Lonely arose because it features a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, played by one of my favourite actresses, Samantha Morton. The film focuses on the contemporary phenomenon of celebrity lookalikes, and particularly on a young man who imitates Michael Jackson (Diego Luna.)
Michael follows Marilyn to a remote Scotttish castle where a group of other famous doubles – including Madonna, James Dean, Lincoln – have formed a commune. The film follows their attempts to live out their dreams and stage ‘the greatest show on earth’.
The ‘lookalikes’ may not be identical to their real-life counterparts, but they all seem to find in them a way to express their own needs. Morton, as Monroe, has a gentle, fragile quality which, one can speculate, Marilyn herself might have shared. After all, ‘Marilyn Monroe’ was also an invention, a celluloid fantasy inhabited by an ordinary woman, Norma Jeane.
While filming Mister Lonely, Samantha Morton hosted an auction of Monroe memorabilia in aid of Save The Children’s Rewrite The Future campaign. Explaining her admiration for the iconic actress, Morton said, ‘Marilyn, like me, was brought up in foster care, so I knew what it was like not to feel safe and secure.’
Marilyn is unhappily married to a Charlie Chaplin impersonator, and drawn to Michael, the ‘Mister Lonely’ of the title. The storyline may sound flaky, but the thirst for fame, even by proxy, is a theme for our age which deserves serious attention. In a subplot, Korine follows an order of nuns who believe they can fly. The message is paradoxical – Korine seems to be urging us to follow our dreams, while warning us that they may not come true.
There are many references to popular culture within the film. Anita Pallenberg and James Fox, reunited for the first time since Performance (1970), play the Queen and the Pope. Their scenes together verge on high camp, but are also moving and funny. Different segments of the film are named after Michael Jackson’s songs – ‘The Man In The Mirror’, ‘Beat It’, ‘Thriller’, and ‘You Are Not Alone’.
Marilyn has been married for seven years, recalling The Seven Year Itch (1955.) That film also featured the legendary ‘skirt-blowing scene’, which is replayed here not as comedy, but a moment of transcendent beauty. And the plotline where the commune’s sheep must be culled is reminiscent of Monroe’s last film, The Misfits (1961), in which she played a divorcee horrified by man’s cruelty to animals.
Mister Lonely has received mixed reviews, with some critics mocking it as rambling and pretentious. This is a narrow-minded response. Korine has managed to explore his subject from the heart, without preconceptions. Viewers need to do the same.