Some of the stories about Matthew McConaughey have gone done in Hollywood legend. One of the more famous saw the lackadaisical Texan lifted by the police after he was found playing the bongos clad in naught but a smoky miasma. Former enfant-terrible Harmony Korine (Gummo, Spring Breakers) takes that persona, ramps it up a few hundred times and dumps it on screen. The result is Moondog, a neo-beat poet fuelled by pure hedonism, and the protagonist of a stoner comedy loose enough that it threatens to fall apart at any moment. For some, this will be part of its considerable charm.
Moondog’s most celebrated work is long behind him, yet he’s still riding the druggy coattails of past glories, with his Epicurean antics bankrolled by his Croesus-rich wife Minnie (a game Isla Fisher). When tragedy strikes and she is killed in a car smash he must dig deep into what’s left of the wellspring of his talent and produce another book or he will forfeit Minnie’s estate. Can our hero deliver his magnum opus while learning precisely precisely nothing about the experience?
Tight plotting has never been a characteristic of Harmony Korine’s films, but freewheeling doesn’t even begin to describe the narrative of The Beach Bum. Moondog’s picaresque stumbles from one incident to another seem to have nothing but ropes of marijuana smoke as connective tissue. It’s going to be loathed by many people, but to get purse-lipped about a Harmony Korine film is to somewhat miss the point. Sure, it’s aimless and lit as much by sheer narcissism as it is by Benoît Debie‘s gorgeous 35mm photography. The characters, if these doodles in human form can be labelled as such, are devoid of any arc or progression and enabled by disgusting privilege.
Despite this The Beach Bum is a gleefully juvenile hang-out movie that is fundamentally rather sweet, devoid of the mean streak that characterises much modern comedy. For all Moondog and his chums – Zac Efron, Jonah Hill, Snoop Dogg (as the wonderfully-named Lingerie) and, weirdly, Jimmy Buffet all feature – are insufferable man-children there is something innocent and good-natured at work that means it just about gets away with issues like its crass, leering sexual politics. The male gaze remains just that after all, even through the filmy cataract of irony.
Whether there is any genuine satirical intent at work in The Beach Bum is debatable; it never feels like Korine is interested in either condemning or exonerating its ‘hero’. There’s no moralising beyond the slightly glib observation that rich people can do whatever the fuck they want. It’s simply an amalgamation of Korine’s earlier grungy character pieces like Julien Donkey-Boy and the corrupt neon aesthetic of Spring Breakers. It’s not big and it’s not clever, and it certainly misses Isla Fisher’s feminine touch when she bows out, even though her scenes resemble some Floridian version of Caligula. It does however have the kind of go-for-broke performance you rarely see from a respected leading man and its meandering, druggy charm slowly worms its way in. So encased in the vapours of weapons-grade weed is The Beach Bum that you half expect it to set off your smoke alarm.
In selected cinemas now.