The last time audiences went to Florida with writer-director Harmony Korine the product was the wildly provocative (and incredibly divisive) Spring Breakers. Korine once again takes audiences to Florida with his sun-drenched follow up The Beach Bum, which surprisingly has many of the excesses of Spring Breakers without the more aggressively off-putting elements that caused so many people to loathe Korine’s previous film. The Beach Bum is Harmony Korine’s most accessible film to date but one that doesn’t sacrifice the idiosyncrasies that make Korine such a distinctive filmmaker. Korine has delivered a hilarious portrait of hedonism, a film that works because it’s not a celebration of excess but a comical examination of over-indulgence and the absence of consequences for the upper class, especially if they’re a white man who has been dubbed a genius.
Matthew McConaughey is in the role he was born to play as Moondog, a perma-stoned, perma-drunk poet living a life of blissful excess. He floats between Miami and the Florida Keys, always with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand and a joint dangling out of his mouth. Nothing is a worry for Moondog. He’s been hailed as a genius since his youth and he’s financially secure thanks to the inherited fortune of his wife Minnie (Isla Fisher), who lives in a posh mansion on the water. Of course, Moondog’s carefree lifestyle does sometimes cause disruptions in the lives of others, such as his rambling, incoherent speech at the wedding of his daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen). Any time it seems that Moondog may have pushed the envelope too far, he’s able to kick his stoned charms into overdrive and stagger out of trouble unscathed.
But Moondog’s good times are about to hit a major snag. A series of events that won’t be revealed here for spoiler reasons leaves Moondog out on the street, unable to access his wife’s mansion nor her fortune unless he completes his great American novel. Now adrift alongside the crystal clear waters of Florida, Moondog wanders in his consistently carefree sprit, running into a rogue’s gallery of eccentric characters. Along his journey of continued inebriation, Moondog cavorts with Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), a successful rapper and massive pothead; Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), an energetic but fairly incompetent dolphin tour guide; Lewis (Jonah Hill), Moondog’s southern literary agent; and Flicker (Zac Efron), the vaping son of a preacher with a wholly unique sense of style. The Beach Bum lives up to its title as McConaughey’s Moondog roams the neon-infused oceanside world followed by a cloud of marijuana smoke.
There will be those who see McConaughey’s Moondog as an aspirational figure and there will be those outraged that the film is glorifying his over-indulgent lifestyle. I’d argue that you’d have to be higher than Moondog to believe that the film is glorifying his never-ending drug-induced frenzy. It’s that Moondog has charmed his way into the American upper class, a realm of society that has shielded him from consequences and fueled his devil-may-care attitude. Eventually, Moondog does face a number of consequences for his excesses, but years of being shielded from the worst of those consequences means that’s specially prepared to live without anything despite a life lived with access to everything. His superpower of being impervious to hardship comes from a charming confidence that can only be earned by decades of being hailed as a genius. In this character Korine has crafted a brilliant commentary on the insular nature of wealth and how abhorrent behavior can be overlooked when one’s been considered a genius – look around at the world today and the famous faces taken down in the #MeToo era to see how the label of genius is employed to justify and overlook the worst behavior.
What’s most impressive about what Harmony Korine has crafted in The Beach Bum is the way in which the story unfolds in fragmented segments that make sense as a whole. Scenes are assembled in a way that resembles a blurred memory from the previous night of raucous partying and in the edit Korine assembles thematically coherent sequences. It creates a rare cinematic experience that takes you into the dazed mind of its lead character without actually adopting their point of view. The Beach Bum is the kind of film that gives you a contact high.
McConaughey is just as good as expected as the stoner poet laureate of South Florida. The actor leans heavily into his own laidback, beach bum persona to blur the lines between fiction and reality. It’s not hard to imagine McConaughey at his own beachside estate, puffing on a joint and sipping on a beer surrounded an array of topless women of all shapes and sizes as he creatively riffs on whatever project that tickles his fancy. McConaughey shines brightest in The Beach Bum when he’s working opposite the film’s great supporting players, especially the scenes with Isla Fisher where the complicated yet simple relationship between eccentric spouses come through in every sexually charged scene. Like McConaughey, Snoop Dogg plays off his public persona as the character Lingerie, and the film features what is perhaps the most unlikely duet of Snoop’s career in an impromptu number with Jimmy Buffett. In a film full of scene-stealers, none is as wildly entertaining as the amazing appearance by Martin Lawrence. It’s not worth divulging too much information on Lawrence’s small role, but his few scenes prove to be the funniest and most shocking moments in a movie full of hilarious and outlandish moments.
I can vividly recall watching Spring Breakers with glee as I thought about all the people the movie would piss off. With The Beach Bum, though, I wonder what kind of reaction it’s going to get from general audiences. It’s a movie that so damn funny that I think audiences might be forgiving of its drug-like construction, but it’s also so uncompromising in its excessive hedonism that many may just wholly reject it as needlessly over-indulgent. It doesn’t matter. I love The Beach Bum and am confident that time will hold Harmony Korine’s crazed comedy in high esteem. Take the time to get to know Moondog. He’s gonna show you a time that’s alright, alright, alright.
The Beach Bum
Another hedonistic journey through Florida from writer-director Harmony Korine, The Beach Bum is a crazed comedy of chemical excess drenched in a haze of neon and pot smoke as Matthew McConaughey’s poet Moondog lives a carefree life despite falling into trying times.