movie review

The Beach Bum Is Part Tragedy, Part Provocation

Matthew McConaughey. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Neon

Harmony Korine teases you — even his first name seems ironic. In his druggy symphonic poem, The Beach Bum, he feigns harmoniousness, but the movie is full of dissonances, small and mighty. You don’t always know how you’re supposed to take the title character, Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a Southern Florida–based poet and novelist whose dissolution is positively zealous. If Moondog isn’t holding a giant spliff, sucking down PBRs, dancing around in a Jimmy Buffet–ish haze, and injecting himself into other people’s spaces, he doesn’t really exist. Is Korine celebrating Moondog’s life force even when his antics bring death? Or is Moondog’s relentless boundary-flouting meant to be tragic, to suggest a drive towards self-immolation and oblivion? A true dramatist doesn’t need to choose between those extremes or render any sort of judgment whatsoever. But I can’t tell if Korine is a true dramatist or a simpleminded provocateur who lives to mess with our heads. Both, probably. To him, the joke is that it’s all movie fodder. Moondog is an existential hero for a weightless universe.

McConaughey is certainly flying high. He sing-speaks his lines (some of them improvised) in a higher register, as if etherized. He doesn’t walk — he bops, he swivels. In his baggie shorts and loose, tie-dyed shirts, he’s always jazzed. He’ll snuggle with anyone (he’s a groper), but still go back to his wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), an heiress with a Miami manse who has made peace with his long sojourns to the Keys because she accepts he’s a genius “from another dimension” — and maybe because she finds sexual fulfillment in the meantime with Snoop Dogg as a musician/drug dealer known as Lingerie. Moondog returns in time to make a spectacle of himself at his daughter’s wedding to a guy he calls a “milk-drinking closet case.” He’s momentarily nonplussed seeing Lingerie fondle his wife, but his philosophy of life only hardens.

There’s a have-it-both-ways element of The Beach Bum. Korine is strenuously honest in showing that this boho needs a lot of money to live as he does — although when Moondog’s circumstances change and he has no money, he gets by, sleeping on a beach beside other burnouts. Korine probably means to say that it’s the money that has made Moondog soft, unable to produce a book in years.

He also makes sure that you can’t get off on the romance of drunk driving. There’s an event midway through The Beach Bum that would — if this were a mainstream movie — shred the fabric of what has preceded it. In other circumstances, that event would lead to despair and self-hatred and a lingering sense of loss that no joyride could dispel. You’d get a 12-step film, like Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: Time to accept a higher power. But Korine, bless him or curse him, has the courage of his convictions — or lack of convictions. Moondog keeps drinking, keeps smoking. It’s Korine’s contention — which might be meant as an ironic, movie-ish, feel-good fantasy, like the demented climax of Spring Breakers — that Moondog can hit the skids and still, while perched on a beam under a pier as the tide rushes in, pounding away on his manual typewriter — create the Great American Down and Out Novel. “I like to have fun, baby. Fun’s the fuckin’ gun,” he tells a journalist. And for Moondog, it appears to be just that. Even then, there are ironies. Moondog picks up a stray cat in the film’s first scene and keeps it alive, even at his most destructive. He’s loose with pussy, but not with a pussycat.

I imagine that Korine and his editor, Douglas Crise, would like you to think they were high as fuck in the editing room. They freewheel back and forth in time for no apparent reason except to seem as freewheeling as their protagonist. The chestnut-laden soundtrack, though, is fluid. This isn’t a cheapjack indie movie. Jimmy Buffet pops up — how could he not? Martin Lawrence has a delightful, gross-out bit as a dolphin-sighting tourist boat captain who’s so stoned that he wants to swim with dolphins even when said dolphins have triangular fins. Jonah Hill turns up as Moondog’s agent, a louche Southern dandy — another attempt by Hill to prove he’s a chameleon actor instead of the blob we first met in Superbad. All right, already, Jonah — you can act. Except you’ve rarely been as authentically great as you were in Superbad.

The Beach Bum would be more entertaining if it weren’t the same scene over and over, with escalation in lieu of evolution. But that’s Korine’s strategy, for better or worse, possibly both. I watched the movie from the vantage of someone who still curls up with a bourbon and Charles Bukowski, regretting only that I bought the book instead of stole it. I also watched the movie as a bourgeois materialist who cringes at vandalism (windows smashed, paintings defaced) for its own mindless sake. My reaction to the film can be summed up as follows: Get the fuck off my lawn, Moondog — but can I get a hit of that first?

The Beach Bum Is Part Tragedy, Part Provocation