Despite the negative reviews trailing like a string of discarded beer empties behind Harmony Korine’s new film The Beach Bum, I was willing to go see it. I was one of the people who, in 2012, was pleasantly surprised by his film Spring Breakers with its warm neon and pastel colours, dreamlike editing and pacing, and uniquely memorable performance by James Franco. I was hoping that, bad reviews aside, Korine’s new film would have some of that spark.
Despite also being set in Florida and using a similar pastel and neon aesthetic, The Beach Bum has little, if anything, to offer its viewers. It’s hard for me to find a film that I find this thoroughly disinteresting – even bad films often have some odd or quirky element worth discussing. The Beach Bum in question is Moondog, an aging poet living in Key West, Florida, who traipses through the film on an unending string of drugs, alcohol, sex, and asinine encounters. They aren’t encounters so much as scenes blithely shot and revelling in excess and indulgence. Moondog is married to a wealthy woman (played by Isla Fisher) who owns and controls their money. They both live a lifestyle that involves other sexual partners with Moondog periodically returning to his wife to rekindle their passion. After one of these returns based around their daughter’s wedding, his wife overdoses during one of their drug fuelled jaunts. Moondog learns that his half of the inheritance (the other half goes to their daughter) can only be claimed if he finishes his unwritten novel (about which nothing is really conveyed).
The sequences that frame the rest of the movie involve disconnected and semi-wild acts of rebellion and transgressive behaviour, in between which Moondog, using only one finger, types out his manuscript on a portable typewriter he carries around with him and often cradles between his legs like an extension of his crotch. He eventually completes his manuscript, is lauded for it and wins an award, claiming his inheritance, all the while wearing women’s clothing – supposedly to disguise himself and evade the eyes of the law. Moondog is played by Matthew McConaughey who gives himself over to the sociopath stoner performance but I wish he hadn’t. He’s a completely unsympathetic character and worse than that, annoying and frustrating to boot, the total embodiment of Korine’s indulgent, spoiled filmmaking ethos. My friend described the film as having no moral compass and as such, it’s really hard to care about him or his travails, and furthermore, the ending where he inherits his money and then decides to burn it all on a boat out on the water seems that much more meaningless. Which might be the point of the movie, I suppose: the entire nihilism of it all (kind of like Korine’s script for Kids, the early film that brought him notoriety).
But this brings us to the question of why characters are always praising Moondog’s brilliance in the film? From his wife to his daughter to the character Snoop Dogg plays to various incidental bit characters, they all seem to applaud and enable Moondog’s awful behaviour and waste of personality. Why did McConaughey agree to play this role? Did he hope to create a repeat of Franco’s success with Spring Breakers? Is that why the other actors signed on? Besides Isla Fisher and Snoop Dogg, the film is populated with offbeat (and similarly dislikable) characters played by Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, and Jonah Hill. All of these actors (except for Snoop Dogg) have talent but are wasted in this endeavour. There was a moment with Martin Lawrence in the water swimming with dolphins, only to realize they are sharks, that I found funny. The rest of the film is a disagreeable haze that is a paen to Moondog’s endless bacchanalian m.o. ; he’s a sort of Beat poet type who does not have the bite of his earlier beatitude.
Korine is a darling bete noire of the indie film scene and this project takes me back full circle to Kids, a portrait of extremely unlikable teenagers skating and hanging around New York City in the mid nineties. However, from what I understand, at least that was praised for its realism despite its mean-spirited and cynical, nihilistic sensibility. There’s very little, if anything, in The Beach Bum that is realistic or insightful about the human condition. The poetry that Moondog recites does not seem to really come from the character in the film. It seems grafted on, as is Moondog’s supposed charm and glory. It’s as if this is what Spring Breakers would have been like without Franco’s contribution, if the entire film had just been the young bikini-clad women indulging in excess of sexuality and alcohol forever in drugged slow motion. I can’t honestly say I’ll be tempted to check out what Harmony Korine’s project will be next time. There are much better things you can do with film, a camera, and talented actors.