A rebellious stoner named Moondog lives life by his own rules.
Director: Harmony Korine
Writer: Harmony Korine
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration Available
The line between genius and idiocy is a razor-thin one. The art we consume is generally lionized, and there’s usually little regard given to the collateral damage created in order to make it, including the people affected by the genius in question. But if the art is divine, are the sometimes-insane roads traveled to achieve it — for better or worse — worth it? And can the collision of terrible decisions, horrible behavior and worse, smashing against heavenly inspiration, still create something akin to poetry? This notion— and the ideas of anti-ambition, and debauched pleasure-seeking—consume Harmony Korine’s “The Beach Bum,” a hilarious, wild, sometimes problematic and gorgeous-to-look-at comedic cosmic odyssey about finding your spiritual bliss.
The artist in question in “The Beach Bum” Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) — like Prince, just the one name — who we’re told throughout is a brilliant writer/poet who hasn’t published anything in years. He and his wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) are insanely wealthy, but Moondog spends months at a time slumming it down in the Florida Keys being the patron saint of the lowly, fishing with topless women, making public appearances to do spoken word poetry, and drinking and smoking himself silly to the point of passing out. Minnie may be sleeping with their close friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg, essentially playing himself) when Moondog is away, but when he returns, she embraces him with open arms (and legs). He shows up obliterated to his daughter Heather’s (Stefania LaVie Owen) wedding, but she accepts him. His agent Lewis (a scenery-chewing Jonah Hill doing a hilarious Foghorn Leghorn routine) is on his case for being a burnout and not publishing any new material, but they still play golf together and take a J-break in the rough. They understand— and enable—Moondog’s loose-to-the-point-of-irresponsible lifestyle. But, tragic circumstance leaves Moondog evicted from his house, with the only option of returning being to finish his book. “I gotta go low to get high,” he tells Minnie.
Just how low Moondog does go is part of most perverse pleasures in “The Beach Bum.” The hedonism on display is very much of a piece with “Trash Humpers” and “Spring Breakers,” but in a surprising change of pace for Korine, the film is more at ease with itself, and more emotional than either of those two provocative efforts. The movie, like the character, is totally high and there’s a joyful and celebratory ecstasy about enjoying life that permeates the film in blissful music montages (The Cure, Jimmy Buffett, Gordon Lightful) filled with swooning, sun-dappled photography and breathtaking shots of Florida sunsets.
There’s an aura to Moondog that’s instantly warm and inviting to the people he meets, and while he’s a trainwreck, you want to enjoy from afar, anyone who can make people feel a little bit better in their own skin cannot be written off, either. This fascinating contradiction is on display during a stint in rehab where Moondog meets Flicker (Zac Efron)— the son of a preacher who un-ironically thinks Creed is “heavy metal”— and the two escape, stealing golf carts, boats, and assault a handicapped man to take his scooter as if they were playing a real-life game of “Grand Theft Auto.” The scene ends with Moondog reciting poetry over the sunrise and elating both of their spirits.
That sequence —something ugly and gratuitous, followed up by something stunningly beautiful— is “The Beach Bum” in a nutshell, and yes, scenes like this will disquiet and unnerve. Tying it back to the initial thesis, there’s a sense that Moondog’s reckless behavior being rewarded because of the outstanding art he makes may trigger debates about whether or not Korine is “reading the room.” The director either doesn’t care or isn’t considering the theme of bad men getting away with bad behavior for years because the products that came out from it were worthwhile. At the very least, “The Beach Bum” does have problematic elements strewn throughout its bizarre take on pleasure and happiness at all costs. Like Moondog himself, it doesn’t seem like Korine has any malicious tendencies other than looking to find the beauty in a broken individual and follow his journey to rediscover calm, but the tension of those two ideals co-existing does feel uneasy at times.
Meanwhile, admirers and detractors will find common ground in McConaughey’s transformative performance. One would think that it would be easy — or potentially one-dimensional — to see McConaughey step into the role of a sun-baked stoner, but he leans heavily into the physicality of the performance and the lazy-washed-up-beach-wave musical nature of the improved dialogue. The mannerisms, his walk, his consistently nearly-nude state, and the subtle flickers of clarity that occasionally jolt to life underneath the foggy haze; McConaughey is always vibing and despite feeling loose and free is deceptively locked in and committed to the role.
A moment during his daughter’s wedding when he sees Minnie and Lingerie kissing under the fireworks is a good example. Usually, this moment would devolve into confrontation, but McConaughey lifts up his sunglasses, briefly looks shocked, and then takes a dive into a pool with a lit joint. The high is merely easier than the truth, plus it is the character, and movie’s way, to focus on the bright side of life, even better when there’s a spliff around.
The ensemble is stellar overall, but the one person who deserves a special shoutout is Martin Lawrence as Captain Wack, a Vietnam War veteran with a limp who owns a dolphin tourist attraction and has a drug-addicted parrot. Lawrence hasn’t been in a film for eight years, and Korine wrote an exceptional, however brief, part that allows him to showcase his chops and remind everyone why he became a popular comic in the first place. When McConaughey and Lawrence riff and go toe to toe, man, it’s something special.
As with “Spring Breakers,” Korine has once again enlisted the great Benoît Debie as his DP, and the film beautifully captures Moondog’s perpetual pot daze, the inherent sense of lazy, carefree leisure in the Florida air, and the rapturous way the sun colors this country. The woozy, Malickian camerawork is there, but it fittingly plays out more like a mellow high in this film than a descent into madness. Debie and production designer Elliott Hostetter deserve the credit for helping shape this dreamlike, oddball odyssey. Every single location is comically elaborate and specific to each character, but never feels like they’re working against each other.
It’s a welcome, yet strange occurrence to see the evolution of “Harmony Korine: A-List Director.” It’s also fascinating that despite how abrasive “The Beach Bum” can be in moments, it’s completely palatable and wins you over with its wild optimism. At its core, it is a riches-to-rags screwball comedy like “Trading Places, ” crossed with “Jackass,” but done through Korine’s sensibility for creating heightened worlds, populating them with oddballs and outcasts and giving them their time in the sun (literally, in this case). Most importantly, the film is laugh out loud funny, even if you feel bad for laughing in some cases. It may not have the hook that “Spring Breakers” did, or the deeper social commentary, but its committed statement to idleness and finding your personal paradise is perhaps its own weird statement about the current state of the world. Perhaps the lessons from Moondog here is, it’s always a beautiful thing to rediscover your voice, maybe just don’t do it like he does.
– Ryan Oliver, The Playlist