CINEMA: The High Lonesome

mr_lonely_1.jpg MISTER LONELY (2007, directed by Harmony Korine, 112 minutes, U.S.)
SUPER HIGH ME (2007, directed by Michael Blieden, 89 minutes. U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

The original plan was to pop in on a late Sunday night screening of Harmony Korine’s new film Mr. Lonely and do a quick overnight review. If only Korine’s latest oddball masterpiece allowed me to keep my senses. Nearly a decade since his last film, 1999’s disappointing Julien Donkey-Boy, Korine has returned, wielding his mix of naive tone poetry, stunning-yet-bizarro visual non-sequiturs and cruel flashes of raw sadism with a more assured hand than ever.

While Mr. Lonely may be his most direct and purposeful work yet, there is still something mysterious about Korine’s work that defies easy analysis. This is present right from the opening minutes as we watch the lead, Diego Luna, as a Mexican Michael Jackson imitator, riding his go-kart in glacial motion, dragging behind him a stuffed Bubbles the Chimp with angel wings. Shot by Danish cinematographer MarcelZyskind as Bobby Vinton sings the melancholy title tune, Korine evokes a feeling of beautiful isolation that wriggles free of any explanation I could type out here. And before you can examine just whatKorine might be up to, he has repeated the trick with one gorgeous, perplexing and seemingly heartfelt sequence after another.

The profound depth of feeling this story evokes must have something to do with our deep connections to the iconic characters the lonely and lost Jacko meets along the way. A wayward Marilyn Monroe impersonator convinces “Michael” to leave Paris and join her at a mountain commune, where various cultural doppelgangers live out their lives in character. It seems like anyone alive in today’s Western world will have an emotional connection to someone represented here, whether it is Charlie Chaplin (played by LeosCarax favorite Denis Levant), the Queen of England (ex-Stones squeeze Anita Pallenberg), James Dean, Sammy Davis Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Madonna or the Three Stooges.

But it is Samantha Morton’s Marilyn who knocks us out. Since first catching notice as the mute ingenue in Woody Allen’s Sweet & Lowdown, Morton has specialized in playing women too sensitive for this world. Watching her channel Monroe’s misery allows her performance to take on a power invested with historical force. Even within the ludicrous situation and the blatantfakeness of the characters, Korine’s impersonators move us in ways perplexing, surprising and just a bit disturbing.

Each of these celebrities stand for bigger ideas, yet Korine never uses them as mere symbols. Instead, he seeks to invest a human core within them. The Michael character, nervous and gentle and free of charges of child molesting, really wins our empathy. Things shift though once he is stripped of his disguise; we don’t know what to think of him, he’s a stranger to us. It a quietly disconcerting moment, just one of the film’s many, and brings up so many issues about America and our media-driven society I’m not sure where to even begin to unpack its meanings. Korine’s queasy sense of humor has always made critics and audiences question his seriousness, yet what more can be more high-minded than cranking out film after film that will keep both constituencies puzzling out meanings from here to eternity.

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After hearing the stir about Showtime’s “daring” series “Weeds, I was disappointed to see how conservative thesuperhigh.jpg show was at its core. The widowed suburban mom played by Mary-Louise Parker may be the dealer of the subdivisions, but she rarely imbibes herself, instead endlessly scolding her pals and clients for their irresponsible stoned behavior. Whatta buzz kill. Although it titillates with outlaw pot fetishism, the series never convinces us, like Judd Apatow’s movies regularly do, that it is made by people who love their weed.

Super High Me, a rag-tag documentary starring High Times Magazine’s 2006 “Stoner of the Year” Doug Benson, has no such credibility problems. Benson, a stand-up comic who appears regularly on Comedy Central and the late-night talk shows, likes to smoke regularly and does not envision himself as someone with a problem. He’s so convinced of marijuana’s harmlessness that he decides to film himself as he stays high for 38 days straight. Benson obviously has the opposite aims from MorganSpurlock in Super Size Me; he wants to prove that marijuana is harmless if taken regularly. At best it proves that Benson is a genial talent who is persuasive enough to get many of his famous buddies to take a toke on the record.

The film does the bare minimum in explaining how consuming marijuana became illegal under Federal law (Ron Mann’s 1999 documentary Grass may be the definitive film on that subject) and instead follows the supremely baked Benson from the doctor to the pot dispensary and to the comedy club stage while he riffs his pro-pot zingers (all legally, courtesy of California’s medicinal marijuana laws). I hoped to stay away from dopehead stereotypes in this review, if only because the people I know who do smoke pot regularly don’t seem any different then the people I know who enjoy a beer regularly. Still, the feeling that kept gnawing at me was that this Potentate of Pot isn’t doing much to defeat the stereotype with such a slouchy and unambitious film.

There’s a few chuckles (turns out his psychic abilities improved a bit while high), and something almost approaching journalism when, at one point, the camera linger in the parking lot while the Feds raid a medicinal pot center, but when it’s all over Benton merrily wanders off into the sunset, pleasantly stoned. After working up nary a sweat, Super High Me is just a little too pleased with itself, and is most engrossing when someone dares to break through the smoky haze. Unveiled as a square, Bob Odenkirk finally gets fed up with all the giddy grass talk and tells Doug to “grow up”; later Sarah Silverman angrily fans away the smoke Benson blows in her face. “What am I your cat?” she sneers in the film’s only snappy moment.

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