A masturbating nun. An armless drummer who deals cards with his feet. A group of blind, physically handicapped bowlers. Welcome to the infantile world of julien donkey-boy, the latest anti-narrative sideshow from Gummo director Harmony Korine, a provocateur so desperate to flout convention that lower-case titles are his idea of avant-garde. Certified by Dogme '95, a super-realist esthetic championed by Lars Von Trier (The Idiots) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), julien donkey-boy marks a relative advance for Korine (it would have to, really), if only for its toned-down mayhem and a half-embarrassed/half-hilarious turn by German master Werner Herzog. Pacing around in a gas mask while nursing a Robitussin bottle and muttering about Brezhnev's dental hygiene, Herzog plays the domineering head of a dysfunctional family in working-class Queens. With scant psychological insight, Korine observes Herzog and his children (borderline schizophrenic Ewen Bremner, pregnant ballerina Chloe Sevigny, and driven high-school wrestler Evan Neumann) in a series of aimless vignettes. Shot on digital video and blown up to a pretty haze of pixelvision grain, julien donkey-boy reaffirms Korine's extraordinary eye for captured beauty, but his tedious improvisational sessions bring to mind an empty, heartless John Cassavetes. Provided they don't mind the film's recycled air—Neumann's savage takedown of a garbage can is virtually indistinguishable from the folding-chair demolition in Gummo—the director's fans will no doubt find plenty to like here. But at its worst, julien donkey-boy is just as cloying and manipulative as anything in Sling Blade, which Korine vehemently and publicly despises. Repeated images of an ice skater twirling to Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and a painfully contrived emergency-room climax are the sort of falsely "poetic" moments he purports to oppose. While it's hard to fault Korine's desire to shake up narrative convention, that task is better left to those who aren't such doggedly pretentious phonies.
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