It’s hard, after sitting through the sunshined-draped “The Beach Bum,” not to wonder that something substantial and substantially life-altering has happened to writer-director Harmony Korine in the seven years since his dark escapist drama “Spring Breakers.”
While that movie was an exercise in causticity and bringing to life some strange, morbid fantasy involving bikini-clad Disney products trading in their Mickey Mouse ears for Uzis, “The Beach Bum” – here referring to a blissful, good vibes-distributing Matthew McConaughey who has never Matthew McConaughey’d harder – uses that same degree of impulsivity as a force for inebriated l-i-v-i-n livin’. The movie is equally about abiding by one’s own rules and flourishing by our self-made excuses for success, but “Spring Breakers’s” coldness made sure that success came at the expense of ostensible innocence. In “Beach Bum,” it comes by way of a colorful drink in a cocktail glass garnished with a mini umbrella.
Korine once again shows he’s a sucker for spontaneity – both on the parts of himself as filmmakers and his characters – to a near-surreal degree. In telling the story of McConaughey’s coastal hillbilly author Moon Dog (a name as conspicuous as it is appropriate) drinking, smoking or typewriting the days away, he stitches a hypnotic yarn that is more a collection of experiences than a traditional movie, and perhaps one that doesn’t have anything to teach or tell so much as suggest.
Moon Dog is seemingly living on the lowest rung of society’s ladder, but over “Beach Bum’s” 90ish minutes, the creeping feeling may rear its head that his ceaselessly-smiling attitude towards everything that comes his way is something to be envious of. While we continue searching for some grand truth to life, Moon Dog has found it, and he’s drinking it through a martini glass. Think Jack Sparrow with margaritas replacing the rum, escapades much lower in stakes and an androgynous sense of fashion. He’s a gloriously cheery character in a gloriously cheery comedy, one that wishes goodwill through storms of marijuana smoke even as it gently pushes us off a pier. It doesn’t run off after doing so; it rumbles in good-natured laughter as if to say, “It looks like you were getting hot and could use a dip.”
Hell, maybe what Korine did since “Spring Breakers” to access a much more optimistic view of life was don the blunt for himself. Moon Dog is cut from the same cloth as James Franco’s violence-prone, chickie-hunting Alien, but the former feels like he slept next to a shrine made to Jimmy Buffer, the latter to Scarface. Moon Dog is the yin go Alien’s yang; a cosmic contradiction with two halves that live life two seconds at a time.
Moon Dog’s world reflects his good-times-should-be-had-by-all template to life, even if his circumstances don’t. He may be content passing the days away slumped over in a rowboat miles away from shore, but he’s got responsibilities too, as well as a reputation that he curates about as carefully as a chainsaw to a tree. He has a past as a renowned author of poetry, you see, but you wouldn’t mistake his vernacular for someone who comparably looks like he takes a bath every one in a while; it’s as profanely low-bar as he is, and it’s also struck an unexpected chord in Korine’s strangely unwieldy world. The more “The Beach Bum” breezes along, the more we see those who inhabit it are more in lockstep with Moon Dog’s sensibilities than we might expect.
That penchant for the outrageous is evident in the people Moon Dog associates himself with, from his stunning wife (a just-as-here-for-the-good-vibes-and-good-times Isla Fisher) to others who range from associates to drinking buddies to part-time employers. Embodying them is an illustrious supporting cast that looks like they’re having the time of their lives: Jonah Hill, Snoop Dogg, Martin Lawrence, even Zac Efron are here to facilitate Moon Dog’s life choices, and to take part in the belligerence.
Where “The Beach Bum” moves beyond us simply watching disciples of easy living endlessly getting high, getting drunk and getting into ill-advised situations is in Korine’s challenging us to question whether it’s right to label those choices as questionable. Or whether we even have the right. The sense of ambition that drives Moon Dog and Co. is emphatically one of a much different caliber than probably any of us can relate to (perhaps south Floridians can tell me otherwise), but does mean we can criticize it?
Unlike “Spring Breakers,” Korine does good work in ensuring that question remains one of deliberation instead of emphatically and blatantly answering it for us by film’s end, although “The Beach Bum” does provide a visual coda much more explicit than most of what has come before. It’s both jarring and also as appropriate as ending as you could expect for Moon Dog, one not out of place with everything we’ve witnessed prior.
If you’re not interested in such thematic minutiae, “The Beach Bum” is still a source for plenty of laughs, improv seemingly as much a tool for its characters as self-deprecation. It doesn’t outstay its welcome and never particularly lingers, moving from hilarious anecdote to hilarious (and sometimes gruesome) anecdote with a trance-life geniality, like bar-hopping with a bucket hat-wearing old-timer recounting stories of past adventures that just keep getting more and more incredulous, either as a result of alcohol intake or creative liberty on the storyteller’s part.
Who’s to say what Moon Dog – the haggard man’s Hemingway who carries around his typewriter in a pillowsack while searching strangers’ coolers for Pabst – would refer to it as, but from our perspective, spontaneity is a founding father of his world. It’s almost a superpower, actually, his capacity to instinctively accomplish something on his own terms, which sometimes means avoiding it at all costs, eventually morphing from habit to uncannily consistent skill. Moon Dog seems to never know where he’ll be five minutes from any given minute—and it might just be his best-kept secret.
“The Beach Bum” is essentially a Korine-led seminar on blissful existentialism. The filmmaker isn’t giving the middle finger to the establishment so much as he is nodding to those for whom practicing stringency means trapping yourself in an uncomfortably rigid life of routines dictated by everyone else but you. That is to say, it’s best to avoid practicing it all costs.
The movie and its characters and their self-created, self-governing laws pursue buoyancy. And “The Beach Bum” is groggily, profanely, deliriously buoyant in that pursuit.
“The Beach Bum” is rated R for pervasive drug and alcohol use, language throughout, nudity and some strong sexual content
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Stefania LaVie Owen
Directed by Harmony Korine