Indie box office: "Mister Lonely" finds friends

Harmony Korine's latest thrives in the shadow of "Iron Man," but this year's indie failures include some of the year's best films.


Andrew O'Hehir
May 7, 2008 2:39PM (UTC)

IFC Films / O'South

Samantha Morton as Marilyn Monroe and Diego Luna as Michael Jackson in "Mister Lonely."

With the great sea of pop culture parting before "Iron Man" and "Speed Racer," the indie industry goes into summer-scramble mode a little early this year, trying to pick up a few moviegoers flung out of the mainstream as if by centrifugal force. If that isn't enough mixed metaphors for a quick post on box-office news, it'll have to do.

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Harmony Korine's bittersweet celebrity-impersonator love story "Mister Lonely" did terrific business this weekend at New York's IFC Center, according to this week's report from IndieWIRE. Only the film gods know whether the one-time prodigy still has a following beyond the Hudson River, but it wouldn't take much to make "Mister Lonely" his most successful work, since "Gummo" and "Julien Donkey-Boy" grossed barely $200,000 between them.

Garth Jennings' British coming-of-age film "Son of Rambow" and David Mamet's jiujitsu drama "Redbelt" opened almost as strongly in limited New York and Los Angeles runs, and both presumably have more crossover potential than Korine's film. (Neither of them is remotely as good, but that's completely irrelevant.) "Rambow" will reach 12 more cities on Friday, while "Redbelt" will open on at least 1,000 screens.

Yung Chang's terrific documentary "Up the Yangtze" and Claude Lelouch's glossy thriller "Roman de Gare" have drawn enthusiastic audiences in New York for two weeks, and will start rolling out around the country. Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor," which I found a sweet but hackneyed tale of an uptight Connecticut professor's liberating friendship with a Syrian illegal immigrant, is officially the spring's sleeper hit, having piled up more than $1.5 million in four weeks on about 350 screens.

I'm depressed but in no way surprised to learn that "XXY," Argentine director Lucía Puenzo's memorable but challenging drama about an intersex teenager, proved a tough sell even in Manhattan. (Don't get me started on the increasingly timorous tastes of New York critics.) It's never difficult to find ambitious and intelligent movies that can't attract flies; cinephiles may be horrified that Hou Hsiao-hsien's masterful "Flight of the Red Balloon" has grossed barely $200,000 in the United States, but that looks terrific compared to "Jellyfish" ($100,000), "Chop Shop" ($82,000), "Shotgun Stories" ($33,000), "Water Lilies" ($22,000) and "Tuya's Marriage" ($15,000). For whatever it's worth -- not much, evidently -- I'd rank those among the best movies I've seen in the first third of the year.

There's also failure of a different kind buried in the box-office reports. Wong Kar-wai's English-language debut, "My Blueberry Nights," has grossed around $450,000, while Morgan Spurlock's "Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?" has made $300,000. Sounds OK compared to the numbers above, but the studios' expectations were, shall we say, on a different scale. Movies like "Tuya's Marriage" and "Chop Shop" cost little to make and almost nothing to market; after art-house screenings and DVD sales around the world, their producers and distributors will remain solvent and move on to the next project. But Wong and Spurlock are now marked with a stain that doesn't rinse out easily: They lost a bunch of other people's money.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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