Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)
Directed by Harmony Korine

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* ½

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Synopsis & Analysis
Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy consists of a series of brief, largely unrelated vignettes which depict incidents from the lives of the members of an unusual American family.

The director strives throughout the movie to make each of his protagonists as quirky or distinctive as he possibly can. The head of their household (Werner Herzog) is thus a rough, abusive widower who listens to music while lying in bed wearing a gas mask, denigrates his offspring, pontificates on a variety of idiotic topics, including talking birds and the virtues of Dirty Harry movies, and even entreats one of his sons to wear his deceased mother's wedding dress. The man's children are just as unique, if not as peculiar, as he is. Pearl (Chloë Sevigny), his daughter, is a pregnant amateur harpist, and his two sons, Chris (Evan Neumann) and Julien (Ewen Bremner), are, respectively, a wrestler who aspires to compete professionally and a schizophrenic.

Perhaps thinking that, as odd as he had made these individuals, they were not unusual enough to render his movie truly weird, the director has peppered Julien Donkey-Boy with a number of other eccentrics, including a rapping black albino, a man who eats lit cigarettes, an optimistic, card playing, armless drummer, and a philosophical blind girl. Sadly, instead of infusing the film with a sense of the strange, the presence of such persons merely makes the viewer aware of how hard Korine is laboring to infuse his film with a sense of the strange.

What is more, by indulging in a crude realism while presenting the doings of these individuals, Korine vainly tries to trick the viewer into believing that he is looking at various nasty undercurrents supposedly present in American society. He apparently thinks that by concocting an assortment of loony characters he can teach the viewer something about the human condition. Such an approach, however, instead of giving the film any profundity, merely suffuses it with a horribly annoying bourgeois didacticism. Rather than creating a work of art, Korine harangues the moviegoer with a lecture.

Visually, the film is as plain and unsuccessful as it is narratively. Enslaved to the narrow ideology of the Dogme 95 catechism, the director relies only upon the most rudimentary techniques. Regrettably, having so freed himself from the need to possess any developed skills, he never displays a sensitivity for the loveliness that can be found in the simplest of forms. Being unconcerned with beauty and thinking that crudeness and lack of talent can, somehow, make a more instructive film, Korine is interested only in a crass, sermonizing Puritan austerity, not in the lovely, affecting, and refined restraint of such artists as Sesshu and Shubun. His coarse approach, consequently, is capable only of producing an eyesore.

Even had Korine freed himself from his silly Dogme bonds, his movie is so burdened by countless awkward and embarrassing conceits that it would still have been atrocious. At different times, the director has one or another of his characters speak some wildly overdone line, display an exaggerated crudeness or an ostentatious weirdness, or engage in some stiltedly telling behavior. Their adventures are just as painful. Singly or together, the protagonists visit a black church, have laughably earnest conversations, throw tantrums, endure utterly predictable crises, take a voyage on a bus with a dead baby, and so on and so on. If such nonsense is not enough to irritate the viewer, he is sure to be nettled when, every now and then, just to make the movie a little more contrived, Korine inserts into it images of a young woman figure skating while playing selections from Puccini's "O, mio babbino caro" on the soundtrack. I cannot begin to express how overwrought and ridiculous all of this is.

While the director could have made use of his characters to arouse in the viewer feelings of revulsion, an appreciation of the strange, or some other emotion and, thereby, crafted an engaging work of art, he never does so. Instead, he has vomited forth a pretentious, ugly, and genuinely unpleasant mess.

Review by Keith Allen

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