Spring Breakers: Venice Review

James Franco
One-time Disney girls go wild, along with a more than typically outré James Franco, in Harmony Korine's stylish but shallow take on late-teen malaise run riot.

James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine hit the beach and the bong in Florida in eternal maverick Harmony Korine's latest.

VENICE – Even by the elastic measure of James Franco’s unpredictable career, the actor gives one of his more bizarre performances in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Playing a Florida white-trash gangsta with beaded cornrows and a gleaming mouthful of metal, he’s a cross between Bo Derek in 10 and Richard Kiel in Moonraker. At one point he sits poolside at a cheesy white grand piano and sings a Britney Spears ballad while three co-eds in DTF pants and pink ski masks do an impromptu dance routine with AK-47s.

Sounds good? Well, like the film as a whole, Franco’s borderline parodistic performance is interesting only up to a point. It may be one of Korine’s more conventional narratives, but this is basically a porn-pulp snort of derision at the American Dream and the youthful search for self, packaged as Beach Blanket Bingo on acid. It has hypnotic visual style and a dense, driving soundscape. But it’s also too monotonous and thematically empty to be seriously provocative.

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival Days 4 Through 6: 'The Master,' 'Love Is All You Need' Premiere Gallery

More than by Franco, the film’s profile will be boosted by the presence of former Disney Channel cuties Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens among all the bong-hitting, boozing, coke-snorting, breast-baring, grinding bodies. “Poetry in motion” is how Franco’s drug-dealing rapper Alien describes the crowd at a beach beer blast. “Bikinis and big booties, y’all. That’s what life is about.”

Gomez plays the pointedly named Faith, a Christian youth group member who has somehow remained close to three reprobate skanks she has known since kindergarten, Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the writer-director’s wife). Cotty has pink highlights and a sullen streak, while interchangeable Candy and Brit are defined only by their slutty blondeness.

Desperate to get out of their dull college town but short on cash, the bad girls wield fake guns and hammers to hold up a Chicken Shack, terrorizing the customers and later torching the stolen car they used. The adrenaline rush they get from this taste of violent crime hints at what’s to come.

Even before they hit Florida, the action time-shuffles Girls Gone Wild/MTV-style montages of hard-partying college kids in various stages of inebriation and undress. Faith seems unsettled when her pals re-enact the robbery for her, but she nonetheless partakes of the proceeds as the four girls cruise around town on rented scooters.

Here and throughout, voiceover is featured heavily, much of it vapid stuff about wanting all this to last forever. Korine and editor Douglas Crise use repetition in the images and dialogue to obsessive effect. Cinematographer Benoit Debie’s visuals, with their sun-blasted exteriors, pink skies, neon splashes and candy color washes, have a cool allure. And the electronic score by Cliff Martinez and dubstep musician Skrillex that saturates every scene (along with a sprinkling of chart hits) is no less propulsive than Martinez’s music was in Drive or Contagion. But there’s a nagging sense that a sliver of substance has been pumped full of growth hormones in post.

When the girls are arrested during a bust at a druggy party, they are hauled in their bikini tops and cutoffs before a judge who orders them to pay a fine or spend another night in the lockup. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” says Faith in whispery voiceover. “This can’t be the end of the dream.” In fact, it’s the beginning of the dream, as Korine steers things in a more hallucinogenic direction.

Alien covers the babes’ bail, and while they question his motives, they climb aboard his pimped-out sports car, with BALL-R plates and dollar-sign hubcaps. A dim bulb with lots of swagger, he paints a self-glorifying picture of himself, flashing wads of cash and an arsenal of weaponry. In one of many instances of Korine having fun with metatextual cine-references, Alien’s flat screen plays Scarface on a loop.

Faith becomes uncomfortable at his sleazy crib. After a tense exchange in which he comes on strong – nicely played by Gomez – she extricates herself from the situation and takes the bus home. Alien insists on the other girls remaining, which signals their endangerment. But it turns out they can more than hold their own.

Like ducks to water, they slip into his crime crew, provide girl-on-girl entertainment and flip sexual domination roles with the receptive Alien. It soon becomes apparent that he has nothing on these girls in terms of their appetite for excess and amorality. Cotty takes off after being wounded by a bullet from Alien’s turf rival Archie (Gucci Mane), and Candy and Brit lead the charge as they strike back. That they do this in matching fluoro-yellow bikinis underlines that the bacchanal is primarily a pop-art exercise – a sour lollipop that loses its flavor.

However it’s intended, the attitudinal posing curbs any capacity to shock. From the minute Alien steps in, the film becomes like a more extreme version of one of those Saturday Night Live video sketches, with Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg flaunting exaggerated hip-hop style. And while Hudgens and Benson evince a persuasive embrace of bad-assery, these psychosexual bunnies have little to do beyond look hot and occasionally fellate a popsicle. Gomez’s character is given a tad more dimension before she exits and is promptly forgotten, but all the characters are thinner than an Olsen twin.

The setting and aspects of the aesthetic will attract comparison to this summer’s Magic Mike. But while Korine douses the air with dreamy melancholia, Steven Soderbergh’s film came by its underlying sense of emptiness and restless longing far more naturally. That said, Spring Breakers seems bound to acquire at least minor cult status.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)

Production companies: Muse Productions, Rabbit Bandini Productions, Radar Pictures

Cast: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane

Director-screenwriter: Harmony Korine

Producers: Chris Hanley, Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Jordan Gertner, David Zander

Executive producers: Miles Levy, Ted Field, Aeysha Walsh, Agnes B, Chris Contogouris, Jane Holzer, Vikram Chatwal, Vince Jolivette, Stella Schnabel, Fernando Sulichin, Wicks Walker

Director of photography: Benoit Debie

Production designer: Elliott Hostetter

Music: Cliff Martinez, Skrillex

Costume designer: Heidi Bivens

Editor: Douglas Crise

Sales: Kinology

No rating, 94 minutes