There’s a special place in my heart for “stupid” movies that are well-made. Whatever it is about them- their earnest charm, their relaxed ambiance, or perhaps most importantly their cathartic purpose- sometimes there’s nothing better than a good movie about nothing. Following up Harmony Korine‘s wickedly satirical cult landmark Spring Breakers, one might be surprised to learn that the transgressive American auteur has crafted his least offensive film yet. To those who have only seen the trailer, The Beach Bum may appear to be a generic stoner comedy that loosely resembles its predecessor in locale and aesthetic. It is anything but. While The Beach Bum does maintain the eccentricity and hedonistic backdrop of Spring Breakers, it relinquishes almost all of the irony and buried meaning of that film. Where Spring Breakers found nausea in the financial privilege of the American upper class, The Beach Bum finds total bliss, basking in the absurdity and over-indulgence of excess without a shred of irony. Is it a shallow film? Almost certainly, but that doesn’t stop it from being irresistibly funny and tremendously therapeutic.
As wealthy stoner-poet Moondog, Matthew McConaughey achieves the pinnacle of the comedic persona he’s been perfecting since Dazed and Confused. Moondog spends every waking moment of his life chasing pleasure and pleasure only, almost exclusively in the forms of alcohol, weed, and sex. He’s a bit of a 21st-century reincarnation of The Big Lebowski‘s “The Dude”, content in the most adverse of situations as long as he has a joint in one hand and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the other. We enter the film watching as he stumbles around the Florida Keys in what appears to be a lifelong bender before being summoned to his mildly disapproving daughter’s wedding in Miami. Without spoiling the single significant plot development of the film, Moondog finds himself legally locked out of his wealth until he publishes “his novel” that he’s apparently been working on for years. What follows is a hedonistic odyssey of stupidity permanently lodged behind an alluring veil of neon light and marijuana smoke.
It must be said that for all the fantastic dramatic roles Matthew McConaughey has inhabited over the years, from Rust Cohle on True Detective to Cooper in Interstellar, this is the character he was born to play. No other actor could play Moondog, mostly because the role cultivates and perfects McConaughey’s established “alright, alright, alright” persona. McConaughey doesn’t seem to be lifting a single finger to understand exactly what he needs to bring to the character, no matter how utterly absurd the situation becomes. One of the funniest moments in the film comes near the beginning- all Moondog is doing is drunkenly steering a little motor boat on the Keys, but McConaughey plays it with such innocent, inebriated glee that I couldn’t help burst out laughing in the nearly empty theater I was seated in. It cannot be overstated enough how much of an unlikely yet totally satisfying career achievement this is for Matthew McConaughey, one that leaves very few corners of his decades-long self-archetype unexplored. The rest of the cast is packed with a wide variety of other colorful characters- most memorably Zac Efron as Moondog’s brief rehab partner Flicker, a manic beach bro-type with facial hair that resembles a panini and a constant cloud of vape smoke hovering around him at all times.
Aesthetically, Harmony Korine returns to many of the eccentric tools with which he found success in Spring Breakers. There’s a relaxed sense of timelessness to the Malick-esque montage he employs again, each frame bathed in the dazzling neon luminescence of a Florida evening. The lighting in the film is unexpectedly gorgeous, as if the constant pleasure of Moondog’s existence is radiated outwards everywhere he goes. Music also plays a significant part of The Beach Bum, and many of its best scenes are edited brilliantly to unconventional songs in the same ecstatic manner of Spring Breakers’ iconic Britney Spears sequence. It’s impossible to deny the strong technical craft behind the camera, a fact which may prove immensely frustrating to those that dislike Harmony Korine or the air-headed content The Beach Bum chooses to pursue with full force.
It’s certainly true that The Beach Bum will divide critics and audiences, but perhaps not for the usual reasons a Harmony Korine film would. To the uninitiated, The Beach Bum may look like another misguided stoner comedy that no one asked for- and indeed its abysmal box office numbers seem to agree with such a characterization of the public’s disinterest. I was not particularly enthused to see it myself, but any doubts I had were almost immediately cast aside by its overwhelming charm, and I was filled with immense joy and laughter throughout. There’s a strangely therapeutic quality to watching something like The Beach Bum, a film that wears its aversion to any deeper meaning so candidly and without reservation. Its endearingly relaxed confidence in “sucking the nectar” out of life, as Moondog’s guiding philosophy is so plainly self-summarized late in the film, is infectiously life-affirming. Everyone has their guilty pleasure movies, and I may have just found one of mine.