'The Beach Bum': Film Review | SXSW 2019

A stoner comedy that's high on style, if not substance.
3/29/2019

Matthew McConaughey stars as a pleasure-seeking poet in Harmony Korine's Florida-set film, also featuring Zac Efron, Jonah Hill, Isla Fisher and Snoop Dogg.

The proud cinematic subgenre known as the "stoner comedy" gets a flashy new entry with The Beach Bum, in which Matthew McConaughey plays a washed-up Florida poet who’s like an amalgam of Hunter S. Thompson, The Dude from The Big Lebowski, Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, McConaughey’s own Wooderson from Dazed and Confused and McConaughey himself (or at least the version of him that lived in a Malibu trailer and was once arrested while playing bongos naked).

As pungent, and ephemeral, as the weed smoke that wafts through its garishly gorgeous candy-colored frames, the latest — and lightest — offering from indie enfant terrible Harmony Korine won’t be for everyone. I, admittedly, had a hard time getting on its woozy wavelength. But The Beach Bum is a work of undeniable commitment and craft — a gonzo picaresque, soaked with booze and filled with gyrating, jiggling flesh, that will play well to the not-negligible segment of the population where cannabis lovers and cinephiles overlap.

As is always the case with Korine, the film is not for the prudish or easily offended. It revels in outlandish sights and sounds, including McConaughey smoking a blunt from between Isla Fisher’s toes, spanking another woman with a spatula mid-coitus and prancing about first in a thong, then in a glittery cocktail dress and fanny pack. There’s also Jonah Hill practicing a deep-fried Southern drawl, Zac Efron grinding on a plus-size drag queen, Martin Lawrence feeding cocaine to a parakeet and Snoop Dogg being Snoop Dogg.

If you’re giggling already, you’ll probably have a blast. Others may find themselves growing desensitized to all the zany excess — and feeling a bit distanced by a meandering narrative that relies on riffs, vignettes, visual repetition, elliptical editing and dreamy, music-video-style sequences rather than any kind of forward momentum; The Beach Bum is nothing if not true to the spirit of its main character. Watching it is a little like being sober around your high-as-a-kite friend — by turns amusing and alienating.

Korine’s new movie is decidedly cheerier than his last effort, 2013’s Spring Breakers, which unraveled its tale of American aspirationalism gone awry with hypnotic nightmarishness. But the films share a tactile, burstingly ripe sensuality (both were shot on 35mm by DP Benoit Debie), their images awash in hot pinks and neon greens and blues; Debie and Korine nail South Florida’s aesthetic singularity, the sweaty commingling of lush tropical beauty and aggressive tackiness.

The two movies are also brazen portraits of hedonism, featuring bouts of bacchanalia that will have some viewers clutching their pearls (though nothing in The Beach Bum comes close to James Franco fellating a loaded pistol in Spring Breakers). The difference is that in Spring Breakers, Korine was denouncing the bad behavior even as he used it to titillate; in The Beach Bum, there’s no judgment, no critique underlying the camera’s ogling of sun-kissed, sloppily intoxicated bodies. Decadence and sordidness abound, but it’s guilt-free: Come on in, the water’s fine (just make sure to get your vaccines after).

Moreover, whereas the bodies on display in Spring Breakers were mostly young and female, the main attraction here is the golden, glistening slab of man that is McConaughey. The actor plays Moondog, a writer of some former fame who would be considered a burnout if his life wasn’t such a blissed-out blur of pleasure. With a bleach-blond mane, wrap-around shades, Hawaiian shirts open to the belly and a beatific grin plastered across his face, Moondog is a bon vivant living his best life in Key West — lounging on his houseboat, sandwiched happily between topless beauties, or tearing up the dance floor at the neighborhood bar.

Occasionally we see him clickety-clacking away on his red typewriter and doing poetry readings before dazed-looking locals. Moondog seems unbothered by his failure to follow through on the promise of his (by all accounts brilliant) early published work. He’s too high, and happy, to care.

Moondog is such a free spirit that it comes as a surprise to learn he has a wife, an heiress named Minnie (Fisher), and a grown daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), who herself is about to tie the knot. Moondog and Minnie’s marriage initially seems like one of convenience: He’s a kept man, free to do his thing in the Keys, while she cavorts around their lavish waterfront mansion in Miami, carrying on an affair with the couple’s friend Lingerie a.k.a. Rie (Snoop Dogg).

But Moondog and Minnie love each other deeply, and their relationship, with its layers of devotion, passion, delusion and deception, gives the film a much-needed anchor of real, complex feeling. When Moondog witnesses Minnie and Rie kissing at Heather’s wedding — to the aching strains of The Cure’s "Just Like Heaven," no less — it’s a painful moment, and a revelatory one: The protagonist’s narcissistic haze is pierced, if only for a few seconds, as he’s forced to contemplate desires other than his own.

Via a series of unexpected events, Minnie exits the story and Moondog finds himself cut off from a once-endless supply of financial and material resources. Your enjoyment of his subsequent journey, which includes prison, rehab and homelessness, will come down to how irresistible you find Moondog (as well as how much you’re willing to tolerate Korine’s insistence on his casual genius, one of the movie’s least appealing features). It will also depend on your receptiveness to The Beach Bum’s kooky, increasingly absurdist comic flourishes, which are alternately inspired and strenuous — and sometimes both at once.

As Moondog ventures further down the rabbit hole, he encounters Efron’s raver-ish himbo and Lawrence’s "dolphin guide," the object of the film’s boldest gag. He banters with Hill’s dandy of a literary agent, who sounds like a cross between Tennessee Williams and House of Cards’ Frank Underwood. Various things are snorted and smoked, including a giant joint straight out of Cheech and Chong.

It’s possible to appreciate The Beach Bum as a sustained and inventive piece of style-over-substance filmmaking and still find it all a little on-the-nose, from the casting (Jimmy Buffett shows up in a cameo) to John Debney’s slightly cutesy score. The movie’s looseness feels controlled and choreographed to a tee, its world hermetically sealed, its over-the-top-ness a bit dated.

Then again, subtlety and spontaneity have never been Korine’s thing — he’s a calculated provocateur through and through (this is the guy who made a movie about people who hump garbage). And the writer-director has come a long way from the arty posturing of his earlier stuff, as is evident in the fine work he gets from his performers. Korine guided Franco and Selena Gomez to career-best turns in Spring Breakers, the former going big and baroque, the latter delicate and naturalistic. In The Beach Bum, McConaughey hits a sweet spot somewhere between those extremes: Just when you think he's lapsing into mumbly, stumbly caricature, the actor brings Moondog into sharp human focus, showing you the soul beneath the shtick.

Production companies: Iconoclast, Anonymous Content, Le Grisbi Productions, SPK Pictures, Rocket Science, Vice Films, Riverstone Pictures
Distributor: Neon
Writer-director: Harmony Korine
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Stefania LaVie Owen, Jimmy Buffett, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, Jonah Hill
Producers: John Lesher, Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Nicolas Lhermitte, Steve Golin
Executive producers: Karl Spoerri, Marc Schmidheiny, Nik Bower, Deepak Nayar, Will Weiske, Thorsten Schumacher, Chiara Gelardin, Emmeline Yang Hankins, Eddy Moretti, Shane Smith, Danny Gabai
Director of photography: Benoit Debie
Production designer: Elliott Hostetter
Editor: Douglas Crise
Costume designer: Heidi Bivens
Music: John Debney
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Marisol Roncali, Lashawnna Stanley
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)

Rated R, 96 minutes