'The Beach Bum' Is a Wild Comedy That Harnesses the Full Power of Matthew McConaughey
The movies of Harmony Korine -- his last and best known was 2012's Spring Breakers -- have always felt like trips. The director prides himself on making films with intense, strange, and sometimes graphic and sexual imagery, and nonlinear narratives where anything goes, as long as it's fittingly bizarre. He's the kind of auteur who puts David Blaine and Werner Herzog in the same movie, and whose work has been lauded by stoners and Lars Von Trier alike.
His new movie, The Beach Bum, flits in and out of the life of one Moondog (Matthew McConaughey, in the sweaty, blissed-out role of his life), a one-time best-selling soul poet married to a ridiculously rich heiress (Isla Fisher) who seems to have become a bit too comfortable with his devil-may-care life amongst the bums and street prophets of the Florida Keys. Moondog divides his time between his wife's palatial mansion and a remote island shack, playing at being destitute while actually possessing a huge fortune through his rich wife. The movie never criticizes Moondog for this, though -- that's not the point. Moondog's carefree spirit won't be held down by money and responsibilities, and every weird, unearthly person in his life actually encourages this grand illusion he's created for himself. He smokes and drinks and recites poems and has tons of sex with nameless, dreamy-eyed women, and returns to his actual family's world only to hand his daughter off to a man he's not exactly wild about (and refers to only as Limp Dick). And yet, in true carefree stoner fashion, it's all chill, my dudes -- until something happens that alters the course of his and his family's life.
I won't spoil exactly what that thing is, since it really is a shock that feels at odds with the otherwise freewheeling yarn the movie seems to promise, but it's one of the film's few (welcome!) moments of absolute, crystal clarity. Afterward, Moondog is forced to enter into rehab and complete his next book of poetry if he wants to see a dime of his family's fortune. And he does end up going straight... for about 48 hours.
He escapes from the rehab facility with his new buddy Flicker, played by a heightened iteration of Zac Efron in JNCOs and panini press sideburns, forever exhaling one enormous cumulonimbus of vapor. He goes dolphin watching with a hapless family of straight-laced tourists and Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), who mixes up dolphins with their bloodthirsty counterparts. Jonah Hill appears a few times as a somewhat effeminate richling, whose coddled lifestyle Moondog eschews, but is nonetheless happy to kill a few hours golfing with. Moondog flies over the Keys on a junked-up pontoon plane piloted by a blind man smoking the biggest blunt you will ever see in your life.
Throughout the movie, despite its mumblecore aesthetic and relatively thin "plot," there's a distinct undercurrent of anxiety: Will Moondog get his money? Will he set his life straight? Will he finish the book he writes on an ancient typewriter, spreadeagled nearly nude on the edge of the boardwalk? Come on man, you almost want to scream, shape up, get what's yours and stop wasting your life!
I didn't expect to cry watching a movie about Matthew McConaughey as a Margaritaville exile beat poet communing with cocaine-addicted birds and a surprisingly sultry Snoop Dogg, but, then again, Korine's movies always manage to include the unexpected. Moondog travels around for half the movie with a tiny white kitten, whom he feeds milk cut with PBR. Snoop shows off a voilet-lit Christmas tree of rare marijuana. An army of homeless men careen into the giant pool of Moondog's family estate; Moondog wears a gas mask converted into a bong.
It's all incredibly fun, and hilarious, and weird, but with surprisingly earnest feelings of tenderness towards its subjects. Harmony Korine -- who specializes in the crass and the gross with characters like the cat-drowner in Gummo, the literal trash humpers in Trash Humpers, and Spring Breakers' wannabe crime lord Alien -- is nothing but sweet to the aimless, anarchic Moondog. It's a movie full of love, and not the vapid, walleyed depiction of "love" that movies about drug addicts and day drinkers and midnight tokers often evoke (and criticize) -- though there is plenty of that, too. In the sun-soaked idyll of The Beach Bum, everything really is just fine. Everyone really does love you. Sadness and depression and loss never last forever, not with all this joy permeating the air.
And still, there's a distinct sense of melancholy that cuts that same joie de vivre. Various wars are mentioned (by my count, three times). Moondog announces that he's "lived through" two of them, and Jimmy Buffett (yes, he's in it) even mentions one offhand. There's a sense that this timeless, soft-focus pocket universe is one they've built for themselves as an escape from stress and money and memory, and in the blink of an eye they could all be flung back into sharp-edged reality once more unless they hold on tight to what they feel right now. Moondog might say that’s what living is all about.