I want to make this clear up front: I was assigned this review over my strenuous objections. The assignment was designed purely as a way to torture me, and the fact that I had to skip a meal to wait in line for two hours to see it only made me resent the assignment more. There’s no filmmaker I loathe more than Harmony Korine, and no musician I hate more than Jimmy Buffet, whose music and inspiration is felt strongly in the film. To say that I wasn’t excited about Beach Bum would be a massive understatement. I would have ripped off three toenails to avoid seeing it.
And here’s the thing about Beach Bum: Everything that people either hate or love about Korine’s film is as evident here as in any other of his other movies — the aimlessness, the self-indulgence and the excess, the gratuitousness of it all. In the abstract, I absolutely loathed Beach Bum — as cinematic experiences go, it is my waking nightmare. And yet … in its execution, I was won over by it. I understood what Korine was trying to do, and goddamnit, I actually appreciated it. I feel no pride in admitting this, but I enjoyed Beach Bum in spite of itself.
Much of that has to do with the sheer power of Matthew McConaughey in the role he was basically born to play, a poet named Moondog who meanders through life in a perpetual state of intoxication. He is never not drunk, high, or stoned out of his mind, drifting around the Florida Keys in a perpetual state of bliss. Moondog gives no fucks in the most liberal sense of that phrase. He’s not a person so much as he is a sponge, soaking up drugs, sex, alcohol, and conversation — he’s a human run-on sentence that never ends, and passing out at the end of each night is not so much a period to end of the sentence as it is the space before the next word. Every once in a while he’ll stop to deliver a snatch of terrible poetry or fuck a rando in a diner kitchen while spanking her with a spatula, but he always returns to the never-ending sentence.
In an email to GQ, McConaughey perfectly describes his character: “Moondog’s a verb. A folk poet. A character in a Bob Dylan song dancing through life’s pleasure and pain knowing every interaction is another ‘note’ in the tune of his life. His bliss of being high, hammered and freshly fucked, he’d rather shoot the lock than use the key. Not interested in the truth, he is inconsiderately ruthless in his quest for transcendence.”
It sounds like hell, doesn’t it? I know!
“I have to be with the lowlifes to live my best life,” Moondog tells his wife Minnie (Isla Fisher), when she asks him to come back to Miami for their daughter’s wedding. Minnie is not an impediment to Moondog’s life, however. She’s an enabler and admirer of it. She’s an obscenely wealthy heiress fucking Lingerie (Snoop Dogg, basically playing himself) capable of pulling herself together only long enough to get herself to their daughter’s wedding, which is another set piece for Korine’s brand of indulgence. Moondog shows up late, interrupts the vows to give a speech, calls the groom a limp dick, and goes back to being Moondog. It rolls off the backs of Minnie and their daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), because that’s just who Moondog is. He’s a brilliant mess.
At the end of the wedding night, after Moondog and Minnie get their fill of booze and drugs and sex (not with each other), they go joyriding, which ends in a drunken car crash that leaves Minnie dead. But if you think this is the moment that will turn Moondog’s life around, you’ve clearly never watched a Harmony Korine movie. Moondog doesn’t experience consequences, and even the death of his wife and soulmate is just another cosmic wonder. In her will, however, Minnie stipulates that her fortune will not pass on to Moondog unless he can finish his book of poetry, which sets the second act in motion.
Beach Bum, however, is not about the evolution of a character, or taking responsibility or learning from one’s mistakes — before and after Minnie’s death, Moondog remains obstinately unchanged as a person. He’s not chasing personal growth — he’s chasing bliss, and Minnie’s death just gives him more opportunities to find it. His adventures take him on a boat trip with Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), to a night of mayhem after breaking out of rehab with a human vape machine, Flicker (Zac Efron), and on a flight piloted by a blind Rastafarian.
If this movie sounds like it should be listed among the items in the Geneva Conventions, you’re not wrong. But if you can trick yourself into putting aside your need to see Moondog suffer the consequences of his actions — a consequence, any consequence — and give yourself over to Moondog’s pursuit of transcendence, Beach Bum is a strangely sublime experience. Martin Lawrence and Zac Efron — whose characters live lives similar to that of Moondog — are mesmerizing in their roles, funny, annoying, detestable, and completely captivating.
The movie, however, only works because McConaughey is the human distillation of a Korine film. He doesn’t so much inhabit the character as he is the character, and I don’t know exactly why it works. But it does. It’s a movie teeming with awful — awful people, awful situations, awful actions — but the overriding motivation somehow cancels it all out and leaves a messy, mesmerizing, and sometimes hilarious film about a man chasing happiness no matter the cost.
Harmony Korine’s Beach Bum opens today.
Header Image Source: Neon Pictures