Harmony Korine is a filmmaker who often traffics in shock value. His career is a laundry list of inflammatory works—from his searing screenwriting debut, Kids, to his fragmented, sometimes frightening directorial efforts, such as Gummo, Trash Humpers, and the surprisingly successful crime thriller Spring Breakers. His newest work, The Beach Bum, shares a gauzy neon aesthetic and Florida setting with Spring Breakers, and it’s marked by the usual plethora of drug use, free love, and pirate’s-life-for-me lawlessness that suffuses every Korine movie. But the most shocking thing about the film is its unabashed cheerfulness. For all Korine’s trademark provocation, The Beach Bum somehow manages to be an upbeat, triumphant tale of creativity and free-spiritedness.
The hero of The Beach Bum is Moondog (played by Matthew McConaughey), a romper-wearing, golden-locked, perpetually stoned poet having a chilled-out time in South Florida as he bounces from party to party with only his typewriter in tow. For the movie’s first half hour, no semblance of a plot is in sight—just unfocused but entertaining scenes of Moondog partying with his rich rapper pal Lingerie (Snoop Dogg); the Florida legend Jimmy Buffett (as himself); and Moondog’s wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), an unfathomably wealthy local businesswoman. Minnie’s largesse keeps Moondog afloat, but an unforeseen twist suddenly throws that arrangement into question, so that Moondog must finish his latest book to have any hope of maintaining his charmed life.
You read that right—The Beach Bum has an actual premise, with story stakes, act breaks, and everything. The ensemble might even have been given coherent scripts with lines to memorize. I went into the film expecting it to be an eager amplification of McConaughey’s blissed-out star persona, adapted loosely from the arrest report of the time he was caught playing the bongos naked in 1999 (the drug charges against him were eventually dismissed). But though Korine is happy to have McConaughey monologue about life, the universe, and everything else while puffing on endless joints, this is not just a mood piece. It’s a sort of hero’s journey: a celebration of an absurd person’s ability to coast through the storms and eddies of life with his personality intact. The film even ends on a genuine, if ridiculous, note of victory.
The extent to which The Beach Bum will actually appeal to viewers will depend on their tolerance of Moondog. McConaughey has a tight grasp on the transcendental foolishness of the character, who’s a sort of Arthur Rimbaud on bath salts. But much of Moondog’s creative power lies in his capacity to have a great time without dwelling on the consequences, and watching him avoid consequences for so long might get a little exhausting for some.
Happily, Korine has stacked his cast with a delectable smorgasbord of supporting oddballs. Along with Lingerie, Minnie, and Moondog’s straitlaced, disapproving daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), there are the hard-drinking Cajun literary agent Lewis (Jonah Hill); the maniacal rehab patient Flicker (Zac Efron, sporting an instantly classic grill-marked beard); and best of all, Moondog’s maritime buddy, Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), an amateur dolphin enthusiast who leads tours around the Florida Keys. Each of these major stars gets his own segment of the film, with a unique comedic tone—Efron’s is the most frightening and Snoop Dogg’s the most relaxed, while Lawrence’s has the zippy energy of a Looney Tune.
The episodic structure gives The Beach Bum a Homeric vibe, with none of the peril implied in that term. Moondog faces death, is arrested, goes to rehab, and finds himself temporarily homeless, but always projects an air of invincibility. Even as he gets in an airplane piloted by a consistently stoned, legally blind pal of Lingerie’s (Donovan St V. Williams), there’s never any real sense that things could go wrong for him. By presenting the audience with a character whose superhuman skill is his inability to change, Korine might be gently mocking the hero’s journey—or he might simply be celebrating Moondog’s philosophy of serene aimlessness.
Either way, this is not a movie in which the protagonist needs to grow to achieve his goals. Moondog is kind of a reprehensible person, and at the same time, he’s the life of every party. If Korine sees him as an American hero worth touting, some viewers might find Moondog emblematic of elemental lunacy prevailing over a more rational approach to life. Whether you love this kind of cosmic chaos or not, it’s a bracing thrill at the theater. Korine is, above all, an experiential filmmaker, and in The Beach Bum, he’s guaranteeing the audience an unforgettable experience, if nothing else.