The movie gods arranged a bit of serendipity this week that had me watching Harmony Korine’s new film The Beach Bum and John Waters’ 1972 gross-out classic Pink Flamingos within hours of each other. Flamingos is one of those films that’s been on my “to see” list for years, and when I discovered a local theater was holding a midnight screening, I made sure to pregame (read: take a nap) for it, so I could check it off the list.
The Beach Bum isn’t anywhere near as (intentionally) disgusting as Flamingos is, but Korine and Waters both have reputations as cinematic enfants terribles. They gleefully push boundaries, if only for their own enjoyment.
I wasn’t a fan of either film, but for completely different reasons. Flamingos is as shocking today as it surely was in 1972 – it’s the most outrageous and disgusting movie I’ve ever seen. There’s a fine line between transgressive art (which can be enlightening, effective, and just plain enjoyable) and regressive art (which is usually just an exercise in punching down), and Flamingos spends most of its time in the latter category. A disturbingly graphic rape scene played for laughs is just one example.
Korine’s The Beach Bum spends most of its run time in transgressive mode, or at least it thinks it does. The more you push boundaries, the harder it is to shock people. At this point in our cultural history, it’s damn near impossible to shock at all. Our hero, the brilliant and hedonistic poet Moondog, spent the whole movie trying, and failing, to shock me. A scene in which Moondog performs oral sex on his wife, Minnie, under her dress as a hapless maid attempts to give Minnie a pedicure might have been shocking 20 or 30 years ago. Now, it just seems juvenile; it’s something an 8th grade boy might come up with as hilarious and edgy.
A major disappointment with the picture is how boring it is. For all of Korine’s meticulously constructed chaos, The Beach Bum drags along from one pointless plot strand to the next. I checked the time again and again, incredulous that only 15 or 20 minutes had passed since the last time I looked.
The character Moondog (and the movie in general) is a spiritual cousin to Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski from the Coen Brothers’ brilliant 1998 cult sensation The Big Lebowski. But where Lebowski is deceptive in its presentation of the story as aimless, The Beach Bum really is just an aimless mess. It also never bothers to introduce any real dramatic stakes. It’s just Harmony Korine and friends fucking around for 95 minutes, and I never gave a damn about anything happening on screen.
Presumably most of the fun of this comedy should come from the perfect marriage of character and actor in the form of Matthew McConaughey as Moondog. Korine must have assumed that 75% of his work was done for him once he had signed McConaughey for the role. He probably thought that people would take a look at the trailer, with scenes of McConaughey drinking, inhaling drugs, and playing bongos, and it would be an instant success. The fun is in assuming that those scenes could be from the actual movie, or of McConaughey in between takes.
For sure, McConaughey was born to play the role. The actor has cultivated his “alright, alright, alright” hippy-dippy, “just keep livin’” persona for years, and it should be a delight to watch him as Moondog; his public persona on steroids. The brilliant film critic David Ehrlich put it succinctly (and hilariously) when he described Moondog as “final boss McConaughey.” It turns out, though, that not only is watching a movie about how McConaughey spends his weekends not enough to hold an entire movie together, it’s not even particularly funny or interesting to watch on its own for very long.
Korine surrounds McConaughey with a half-dozen celebrity cameos that range from almost inspired to cringeworthy. Because the director thrives on removing all restraint, each actor turns up to 11 in The Beach Bum. The result is every costar acting in their own little movie. There’s no cohesion to any of it.
Isla Fisher plays Moondog’s obscenely wealthy heiress wife with a ridiculous prim and proper upper crust accent. Snoop Dogg is, well, just Snoop Dogg as a rapper named Lingerie who keeps Margaritaville singer Jimmy Buffett around (playing himself) as a hanger-on. Jonah Hill also sports an unfortunate accent – I think it’s supposed to be from New Orleans – as Moondog’s hard-partying agent.
Martin Lawrence turns up in the most brain-dead segment of the film as Captain Wack, an acquaintance of Moondog who captains a boat showing dolphins to tourists, but who doesn’t know the difference between dolphins and sharks. It’s this sequence that feels the most like Korine just needed some padding to get his film up to feature length.
The most effective of the bunch is Zac Efron as Flicker, a patient who Moondog meets during his (very brief) stint in court-ordered drug rehabilitation. Efron’s hilarious beard (there are horizontal lines shaved into it) is easily half of the brilliance of his performance. His character feels like an alternate universe version of James Franco’s Alien from Korine’s cult 2012 hit Spring Breakers. Alien (due to Franco’s outlandish performance) is the best thing about Breakers. Although The Beach Bum didn’t work for me at all, and I’m only marginally a fan of Spring Breakers, I probably wouldn’t be able to resist a movie that centered on Alien and Flicker.
The best thing about The Beach Bum is Benoît Debie’s gorgeous cinematography. His neon saturated Key West and Miami settings are the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City come to movie life. I love the look of every movie in which Debie is involved, including the critically despised Lost River. He also shot Spring Breakers and is a long-time collaborator with director Gaspar Noé.
You’ll note I didn’t drill down into the plot of The Beach Bum. That’s because it doesn’t matter. Moondog’s ethos – and, by extension, the ethos of the movie – is just to have as much fun as possible. “I like to have fun. Fun’s the fuckin’ gun,” he says at one point. Less succinctly, he also says, “I want to suck the nectar out [of life] and fuck it raw-dog until the wheels come off.” That’s Harmony Korine’s objective, too, and he succeeded, at least in one way. The wheels of The Beach Bum definitely came off.
Why it got 2 stars:
- I had high hopes (pun intended) for The Beach Bum. It looked like Korine was going to embrace his goofy aesthetic, and McConaughey was going to be the most McConaughey he had ever been. Turns out I was right, but the results weren’t as enjoyable as I’d hoped. Korine’s story and humor don’t hold together, and watching McConaughey live his truth for a whole movie wears thin after about 20 minutes.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Added to the comedy that isn’t very funny is the fact that a basic plot point is totally unbelievable. The movie sells Moondog as a poetry genius on the level of Keats or Ginsberg, yet it’s never supported. The one bit of archival footage we see of Moondog at his creative best is a public reading of his poems. The audience is tiny, and they react to his presentation with blank stares. I’m not sure if Korine is making a satirical observation about artists who can focus on their work because they are financially supported by a romantic partner (as Minnie does for Moondog), but if so, the message is muddled at best considering the wish fulfillment ending of the movie.
- While the pop music Korine chose for the soundtrack is all great (I actually enjoyed them much more than the movie), the score for The Beach Bum draws way too much attention to itself and is grating. It’s like circus music blaring in your ears for 90 minutes.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I don’t think I’ve ever been the only person in a theater, but I got close with The Beach Bum. There was exactly one other person at my screening. She looked as bored by the whole thing as I did. I don’t think she laughed out loud once.