Dir: Harmony Korine. Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Stefania LaVie Owen, Jonah Hill, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, and Jimmy Buffett. 18 cert, 94 mins.
Harmony Korine has always skirted the edges of bad taste. His 1997 cult classic Gummo, a film about the dysfunctional residents of a tornado-ravaged Midwestern community, was all tragicomedy and small-town decay. Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) was so black in its humour that Werner Herzog’s presence as a suburban dad felt perfectly logical. And 2012’s Spring Breakers, Korine’s most recent movie, was a patchwork of guns, white-boy cornrows and Britney Spears at her saddest, but was as narratively thin as the string bikinis Disney alumni Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens sported while robbing West Coast mansions.
Clearly, Korine is steered by his attraction to the theatrical, the absurd and the grimly nihilistic. The Beach Bum is all of that and absolutely none of it, too – a leisurely, neon-soaked stroll through chaos and hazy bohemia, full of slapstick and pathos. It is as much Korine’s most mature film as it is his most juvenile.
Matthew McConaughey is Moondog, a celebrated poet expected to write a book that he can barely begin, let alone finish, and whose life is a series of strange and meandering adventures. His daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen) resents him, his publisher (Jonah Hill) pines for the days when world-shaking poetry flowed out of Moondog like marijuana clouds, and his wealthy wife (Isla Fisher) is sleeping with their mutual best friend, a rapper, dealer and minister named Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). And Moondog is mostly oblivious, getting stoned on his boat, The Well Hung, and reclining around troupes of topless women.
Moondog marks McConaughey at his loosest, with Korine taking advantage of the myth that has always surrounded the actor – that he is a man of relentless chill, who is spacey and cerebral and was once arrested while playing the bongos naked. He appears to be doing a vocal impersonation of Giovanni Ribisi here, his voice dialled up to a nasally whine, and he sources deep, soulful chemistry with the figures he encounters. This isn’t so much a linear movie as a shaggy collage of scenes, with Moondog riffing against characters played by Zac Efron, Jimmy Buffet (as himself) and Martin Lawrence.
If the Oscars were any fun, Lawrence would be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his brilliantly surreal cameo. He’s Captain Wack, an old friend of Moondog’s who boasts that only four tourists have died in the eight years he has been working as a dolphin tour operator. He also declares it to be “orgy season” in the dolphin community, a gag that succinctly reflects the film’s taste level, and operates as a surreal premonition of what is to come.
As funny as much of The Beach Bum is, though, there’s also something quietly mournful here, too. It’s about an iconoclast facing middle age, about responsibility and lost love, and Korine, potentially at least, facing his mortality. It’s also deeply romantic. A night of freewheeling excess between Moondog and Fisher’s Minnie, one that involves dancing on a dock and sitting ruefully in alleyways, plays out alongside the entirety of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”, while The Cure stirs on the soundtrack above moments of regret and jealousy.
Whether or not The Beach Bum ever properly comes together will depend on your own stance on Korine, who resists every potential bit of total sincerity by throwing in an oral sex joke or a shot of an elderly woman in a wheelchair being sent careening into a wall. But even more than his previous work, it feels especially singular – as dizzying, baffling and heartfelt as something from one of our last scuzzy enfants-terribles could ever be.
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