The Beach Bum Has It Figured Out (Unless He Doesn’t)

In dismissing Harmony Korine’s last movie, Spring Breakers, those who dismissed it made hay over its MTV-esque, debaucherous celebration of scantily clad, drunken teenagers and gun-toting, cartoonish gangsters doing drugs and living large in outrageous mansions, all culminating in an absurd orgy of violence.

Which it is.

Also—and this is the part those people missed—it is not. Rather, it’s a scathing indictment of just those elements, a vicious deconstruction of late-period America in the most sordid throes of its decline, as seen through the addled eyes of its youth culture.

Or is it?

It is both and it is neither. In every scene, simultaneously. And, crucially, the movie itself could not be said to be endorsing either view. This is what so confused people. It’s what’s so unusual about Korine’s movies. He manages this neat trick of presenting questionable behavior without any hint of either judgment or endorsement.

So it is with his latest, The Beach Bum, in which Matthew McConaughy channels his inner stoner as Moondog, a highly relaxed individual you can’t hep but adore, despite knowing he’d drive you nuts in real life.

This is Korine working his magic once again. I’ve known Moondogs in my life. I’m guessing you have too. They tend to crop up around college and linger until, realizing, once your high wears off (theirs never does), that they’re insufferable children with the emotional depth of a ham sandwich, you move on.

Watching The Beach Bum I was alternately struck by both sides of Moondog. Half of the time I loved watching his antics, the other half I thought no way does this clown have anything figured out, this is stoner-boy wish-fulfillment gone haywire. Strangely, every scene can be read both ways. At the same time. Take the final shot, over which the credits play. This is either a man untethered from the bullshit the rest of us are sinking in, absorbing the wonder of the universe like a beam of pure stardust shot into his brain, or else it’s the last desperate spin-out of a man lost to his fellow humans, lost to life itself, a hopeless drunk destined to die alone and forgotten.

Or both.

Moondog lives in Key West. His wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher) is rich. But he doesn’t spend much time with his wife. He’s a poet, but he doesn’t spend much time writing poems. He’s too busy having a great time.

Midway through the film a dramatic turn of events sends Moondog to rehab and the chance of a life-changing epiphany. Or so such an event would demand in any other movie. Not so much here. Here, Moondog plays through it. You might hate him for it. You might, but you won’t. You can’t. He’s too loveable. Also, he’s really the worst kind of person, the most unsufferable, the most selfish. He doesn’t have existence figured out, this ridiculous, hedonistic pothead. He’s not doing it the way we all should. Is he?

No. Definitely not.

Unless he is.

He calls himself an anti-paranoic in that he’s quite certain that the world is conspiring to make him happy. On the other hand, reading from one of his poems, he says, with a charming smile and a stoned twinkle in his eye, “One day I will swallow up the world, and when I do, I hope you all perish violently.”

Unlike Spring Breakers, there’s almost a plot to The Beach Bum, a sort of hilariously typical movie-plot requiring that, for reasons I won’t spoil, Moondog publish his book of poetry. In any other movie, doing so would be an act only possible after important life lessons were learned. But in this movie? Moondog is Moondog, from start to finish.

The Beach Bum isn’t quite the evil, subversive poke in America’s eye that Spring Breakers is, but it’s no less enjoyable. Like Spring Breakers, it’s shot by Benoît Debie, who bathes Florida in vibrant, neon, sunlit colors, and edited by Douglas Crise, who tones down the swirling montage of Spring Breakers, but still blends scenes together with elements of past and present overlapping.

Amusing actors turn up, most notably Snoop Dogg as Moondog’s musical pal, and Martin Lawrence as an inexpert dolphin expert. Also on hand? Jimmy Buffet, naturally. Zac Efron is suitably bonkers, but I could live without Jonah Hill and his faux accent.

The Beach Bum’s movie-plot finds itself a movie-climax, one so movie-predictable, so telegraphed, it’s ridiculous. But with it comes the perfect image for Korine’s view of America: Money falling from the sky—on fire.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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