Teens, ‘tweens, and middle-aged men are drooling with anticipation over Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a hard-R-rated beach-party picture starring three starlets from the Disney entertainment megaverse: Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), Ashley Benson (ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars), and former Justin Bieber squeeze Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) — plus Korine’s wife, Rachel, who’s way out of her league in the sullied-teen-dream department. I don’t know how the Mouse feels about the attendant hullaballoo — maybe he’s ripping mad, maybe he’s rubbing his white gloves together in glee at the prospect of a ratings boost for Pretty Little Liars and the coming The Wizards Return: Alex vs. Alex. But Spring Breakers strikes me as another of Korine’s calculated punk outrages, a sploog in Disney’s direction.
It’s also among the perviest movies ever made — although by spelling out why, I fear I’ll only make some people want to see it more. Spring Breakers opens with a montage of bouncing bare boobs and buttocks barely squeezed into bikini bottoms, the camera gliding up the lengths of young girls’ thighs — see what I mean? That skeevy guy down the street just grabbed his raincoat and headed for the multiplex. The point is that Korine isn’t a passive voyeur. He moves in-in-in on those hot bods — up, down, all around the town. A friend whispered, “The camera is like a giant tongue.” You can almost hear the slurping.
But wait: Korine is the festival darling who wrote Kids (they do drugs, they get AIDS) and directed Julien Donkey-Boy, featuring arthouse cinema’s answer to Jar Jar Binks. Is Spring Breakers deliberately stupid and asinine, a transgressive parody of Where the Boys Are that brazenly acknowledges what Korine’s admirers in the academy call the “commodification of the female body”? Does he mean to have his cheesecake and deconstruct it, too? Either way, I think the movie is swill — but I wouldn’t be shocked if a whole crop of cinema studies papers affirms the case for its genius.
After the wet-dreamy Girls Gone Wild prologue, two college coeds ignore a history professor’s lecture on the struggle of African-Americans to exercise their liberty to focus on their own crusade for freedom — succinctly expressed as, “I want penis.” But they must fight for their right to party — or, rather, their funds to party. How can they take a bus to Florida and stay in a motel and buy booze and drugs when they’re broke? Easy peasy: rob a diner. This they do in ski masks and short-shorts, holding real-looking squirt guns. Satisfaction beckons: “All this money makes my pussy wet.”
One of the four girls, Faith (Gomez), does seem cut from a holier cloth. She’s first seen in a church group, an ingenuous young Bible-clutching thing who’s shot to show the stained-glass window above her. Korine flashes back to that image much later, when she’s throwing back vodkas amid writhing, semi-naked teens. He wants to remind you of her higher self — or to parody the Afterschool Specials that would remind you of her higher self. Or both. It’s hard to tell. Outside her Sodom-like motel room, Faith tells her grandmom on the phone that Florida is “the most spiritual place I’ve ever been,” and she means it: She really is blissed out — “free, as if the world is perfect.” Then there’s a shot of the protagonists giggling in a pool, during which the camera sinks below the water line for a good shot of their bottom halves.
Spring Breakers switches gears midway through with the arrest of these bacchanalians (bikinis behind bars!) and the arrival of James Franco as a flamboyant meth dealer with silver teeth and red-tinted cornrows. He watches them go before a judge and, enraptured, bails them out. “Sprang break … Sprang break … ” he intones, attempting to lull us with his sexy outlaw incantations. In his lavish manse, he shows off his arsenal, invokes Scarface, and says, “This is the fuckin’ American dream, y’all.” Every one of Franco’s lines could be the prelude to a rap song too moronic for airplay. “Sprang break … Sprang break … ” I wanted to spring-break his silver teeth, but at least he’s more committed here than in his other movie on screens now, Oz the Great and Powerful — a Disney production.
By the time the movie segues into a bloody shoot-‘em-up, with girls in bikinis firing automatic weapons, it has lost its visceral kick — it’s outright (and flaccid) camp. But even then the stars don’t throw in the (beach) towel. They’re pros. I’ve suffered through enough Wizards of Waverly Place episodes with my daughters (along with a Wizards movie that is surprisingly not bad) to know that Gomez never condescends to her cartoon material. Benson has moments of bedraggled grace, and Hudgens plays the dirtiest-minded girl with infectious glee.
Still, there’s something overpoweringly creepy about the ways in which Korine goes about debasing his three leads, all of whom are obviously there as a gesture of defiance — an attempt to free themselves from their Mouse patriarch overlord and the shackles of corporate teen celebrity. Korine must have told them if they did Spring Breakers they’d be sticking it to the Man. Do they fully understand that the Man is now him, and that for 90 minutes he and his protruding camera are sticking it to them?