Harmony Korine’s sun-kissed bong-em-up The Beach Bum is the kinda movie you want to live in, be in, experience. A madcap stoner comedy with a zest for life and a disregard for societal norms, it’s a movie made for the hobo in all of us, a meandering yet moving adventure full of oddball detours and hysterical maneuvers. This is the life we should be living, man, ‘cept maybe for the anti-moderation of it all, Moondog’s tendency to self-destruct via drugs and alcohol.
Matthew McConaughey was born to play Moondog, a pot-smoking Florida poet with writer’s block and local celebrity in Key West. A sensualist who acts on feelings, both good and bad, he drinks it, smokes it, dances, smokes some more, then taps away on a rickety typewriter on a piecemeal boat while naked women frolic and old men flaunt their alcoholic. He loves people and people love him, flitting through “life’s pleasure and pain knowing every interaction is another note in the tune of his life,” or so says Korine. The provocateur and current purveyor of filth has conjured a film that both celebrates life and the shirking of rules, rule of law, and responsibility, yet also condemns the American way of excess and wealth trumping all, including the law. He’s trafficking in a few themes I recall in Spring Breakers, the film that started his high dive into South Florida. Where Breakers chose to unnerve more than entertain, Beach Bum chooses the opposite, traveling in comic brilliance each time Moondog embarks on a new adventure with a new cohort, be it Zac Efron’s druggie, Snoop Dogg’s rapper LingeRay, or Martin Lawrence as a vet-turned-boat-tour captain promising dolphins to naive tourists. The latter is a funny and surprisingly gruesome highlight, and Efron nearly steals it all as said addict, a heavy-metal-loving Christian and Moondog’s friend at rehab.
All pleasure till there’s pain to spare, such as the fallout of a late-night drunken joy ride with his wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) or a cringe-inducing run-in at his daughter’s wedding. You come for the hedonism and stay for the occasional heart. Moondog might be a womanizing fiend but he’s no misogynist (they’re in an open relationship, essentially). He loves his wife and that love carries him through the rough-and-tumble life of a semi-fugitive writing the next great American novel while drunk and high and destitute, and it carries us through some of the stickier questions involving morality, family, and many pointless detours. The Beach Bum is mostly plotless and it doesn’t matter. Korine is enjoying the time of life like his riffing subjects, only rarely failing his audience when exploring Moondog’s southern lawyer (Jonah Hill with a terrible accent) or a rando Jimmy Buffett cameo. McConaughey is like fine wine, getting better and better with age. He’s a boon to the film through any rough patches, and his performance is both exactly what you’d expect and somehow consistently surprising in its depth of humor and feeling. You can imagine, in another life, McConaughey indulging in the “tune of life” like his character does here, always looking for a new, next level of great danger and garrulous debauchery. Moondog might be immature, but he’s treating the ebb and flow of our time here as an adventure, not a chore.
Your mileage will vary on Korine’s new finger in the eye. If you find such careless living to be inherently irresponsible or reprehensible then don’t bother, as the movie will only infuriate. It’s a curious point of view, expecting filmmakers and artists to coddle you, to present to you an idyllic form of mankind at every turn. For me The Beach Bum WAS idyllic, the carefree livin’ of a man for whom money and stress was no ill or frill. We could learn a thing or two from Moondog.