Harmony Korine’s first film after Spring Breakers, The Beach Bum has finally landed on these shores to poor reviews and mild indifference. I quite enjoyed it.
Not that it was easy to see. As far as I can tell, it has had a very minimal UK cinema release. The film critics mostly panned it, and according to Google the most voted tags for this film are ‘boring’, ‘mindless’, ‘cringe-worthy’, ‘forgettable’, ‘slow’, ‘bad acting’, ‘gross’, ‘illogical’ and ‘awkward’. However, there’s a mind-numbing charm and undercutting melancholy to this meandering, self-indulgent picaresque that stuck with me.
The titular character is larger-than-life, past-his-prime stoner poet Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a selfish, hedonistic middle-aged man-child whose wife’s wealth frees him from any responsibilities. Moondog shuffles through life, all marijuana-haze, tie-die attire and goofy-smiled charm. If he were any more laid-back, he’d be horizontal. He lives for drugs, casual sex, good times. A pissant with a penchant for poignant penis poetry and whose only aim is to have fun and shrug off life’s darker moments. Moondog abides.
The plot is so thin that I don’t think it really matters that I’m giving away spoilers in the next couple of paragraphs. After a spell of partying in the Florida Keys, Moondog returns to his wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) to attend the wedding of his daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen). Frustrated by Moondog’s absences and affairs, Minnie has herself been having an affair with Moondog’s buddy, a musician and stoner drug dealer improbably named Lingerie played by Snoop Dogg who gives an impressively natural performance.
When Moondog discovers this, he tries to rekindle his relationship with Minnie, but after a boozy, affectionate night out Minnie is killed in a car crash; Moondog escapes with minor injuries. Half of his wife’s wealth goes to daughter; the other half is for him but will only be released on the condition that he sorts his life out, checks into a rehab clinic for a year and writes a new book of poetry. Moondog doesn’t really try too hard and is soon out on the streets, destitute without the buffer of wealth, homeless and even more of a mess. Still ambling through life with the same charm and happy-go-lucky attitude, spending time with new friends and old, including Lingerie, Zac Efron (bizarrely sporting a beard seemingly inspired by the char marks on a grilled panini) and Jimmy Buffett (another musician, playing himself). Moondog gets some inspiration, writes a new Pulitzer Prize-winning book of sub-Ginsberg poetry called The Beach Bum, reunites with his daughter (and his money) and enjoys a Moondog-style happy ending.
I say the plot doesn’t really matter because this is really a meandering sequence of incidents built around the loose plot, mostly of Moondog amiable misbehaving and being larger than life. Matthew McConaughey’s slacker performance is uniformly one-note, despite the highs and lows (both literal and figurative). Moondog doesn’t go through any sort of personal journey. This isn’t a story of redemption, there is no moral or message. Moondog just keeps ambling on, enjoying himself. He remains in a constant, self-absorbed bubble. Any emotional responses are flat and muted despite his own changing circumstances, the discovery his wife was having an affair with his best friend, his daughter’s estrangement or even in reaction to Minnie’s death.
It’s this singular, recumbent happy nihilism that makes The Beach Bum different from similar movies and the source of its low-key melancholy. Although we might find Moondog’s character often entertaining (but mostly tiresome and irritating) he has a hidden wistful emptiness and emotional numbness. Wandering though life solely seeking good times it seems he has no real life at all, even through paradoxically Moondog seems to find his existence entirely fulfilling and espouses a hedonist life-philosophy. A sort of ‘enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think’ for the stoner generation.
Although billed as a stoner-comedy, there are few laugh-out-loud moments except for a particularly enjoyable sequence with Moondog’s dolphin-obsessed friend Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence). Nevertheless it’s diverting and enjoyable and the light humour mostly just adds to the tone. Presumably part-improvised the film has a loose, relaxed feel and how much you enjoy them probably depends on how much you can tolerate Moondog’s character – McConaughey plays him with full commitment and a charismatic charm – and put up with the endless pot-headed party scenes and boobs-and-booty female nudity.
Admittedly, this is a film that mostly treats is female characters badly, women are either there to look decorously slutty, to be adoring acolytes or both. Isla Fisher (whose debut film was coincidentally entitled Bum Magnet!) plays Minnie sympathetically with just the right amount of shallowness, but ultimately the character is a hazily-viewed woman in love with Moondog’s ‘genius’ and who puts up with some appalling behaviour. Only Moondog’s daughter Heather is grounded and in many ways that character is the true anchor of the film.
This is a movie that aims low and generally hits its target, but if you’re okay with that it’s an enjoyable place to be for a while. Although this is nothing like Korine’s earlier Trash Humpers it shares that film’s repetitive mild tedium despite its brief 97-minute runtime that almost seems like a challenge to the audience, not least because the complete lack of a character arc. You need to be prepared to go with it.
The low-key narrative is in direct contrast to some great production values, particularly some stunning widescreen cinematography by Benoît Debie. Debie also shot Korine’s previous movie Spring Breakers as well as Gasper Noé’s Enter The Void, Love and Climax – all eye-popping films – recent Wim Wenders films Every Thing Will Be Fine, and Submergence and last year’s undervalued Jaques Audiard western The Sisters Brothers. Debie infuses The Beach Bum with wonderful warmth, rich colours and sunsets and is often beautiful. It adds a lot to the tone of the film.
The film has a great soundtrack, using a copious amount of music to sountrack the beautiful visuals and again adding to the tone. The relaxed mood of Van Morrison’s ‘Into the Mystic’ is typical, and there’s a bold if slightly obvious use of Peggy Lee’s otherworldly ‘Is That All There Is’, played in its entirety as a bittersweet commentary on Moondog and Minnie’s relationship.
Apparently, Korine found inspiration for The Beach Bum hanging out in Florida enjoying his new-found wealth from Spring Breakers and several of the characters were based on people he met during that time. These two films are much glossier than Korine’s earlier films such as Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, Mr Lonely and Trash Humpers. In moving his subject matter from small town underclass America to the superficial glamour of the Florida party scene, he has lost some of the peculiar edge and leanness that made these earlier films so fascinating and (at times) bracingly appalling.
That said, The Beach Bum is by no means a complete failure, although it seems I hold it in higher regard than most viewers. But it seems like a minor diversion and I miss Korine’s edge. Hopefully, his next movie will be more surprising and challenging.Follow @davefilmblog