After wrapping on the dangerous, debaucherous Spring Breakers and spending six years sitting in the Florida sun, it seems that Harmony Korine has lost his edge—and that might not be such a bad thing. Gone are the days of the sneering auteur’s Kids and Julien Donkey-Boy, angry, challenging art films about forgotten people living at the very outskirts of society. With his latest flick, The Beach Bum, Korine has grown up and mellowed out, shifting his attention inward to make perhaps the only introspective and genuinely kind film of his entire career—all the while preserving his idiosyncratic directing style and penchant for the bizarre. There’s a coke-addicted parrot and Martin Lawrence losing his foot in a shark attack, sure, but there’s also lost love and ambition and a happy ending. Meet the new Harmony.
While The Beach Bum marks a tonal shift for the writer/director, it’s not entirely out of left field. Like Trash Humpers and Mister Lonely, this film is fascinated by communal living among the weirdest weirdos the world has to offer and, like Spring Breakers, it features a star-studded cast getting up to a lot of shit in Florida. Here, Korine has lassoed a wild Matthew McConaughey into playing Moondog, a wandering poet with a heart of gold and a blood alcohol level permanently hovering around “trashed.” Considering his role as another heavy-drinking, tuna-fishing beach bum in January’s abysmal Serenity, you’d think McConaughey would have wanted to toss the “alright, alright, alright” shtick once and for all. Nevertheless, he persisted—and Moondog might be the only possible variation on the character still worth watching.
Tirelessly optimistic and chill to a fault, always with a PBR in one hand and a joint in the other, Moondog is what happens when you combine The Dude with Riff Raff, the white Florida rapper who claims he inspired James Franco’s character Alien in Spring Breakers. Moondog tends to soliloquize about the abyss while wearing women’s clothing and Hawaiian-print pajama sets, as well as two to three pairs of glasses at the same time, which meld with his overgrown, bleach-blond shag and scruffy beard to form a comical disguise. He bounces between his houseboat in Key West, where the community treats him like a poet-god, and his massive mansion in Miami, where his wife Minnie (a delightful Isla Fisher) is sleeping with his neighbor Rie (pronounced “Ray,” short for “Lingerie,” and played by none other than Snoop Dogg). Everyone in this world is truly, deeply odd, with zero interest in living life any differently, but Moondog is the oddest of them all—and his poetry and positive energy bring them all together.
The only one who isn’t totally on board with Moondog’s south Florida shamanism is his daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), who’s marrying some nobody and needs her dad to be on his best behavior at the wedding. Naturally, he isn’t, and this leads to the only significant plot development in the entire film—a detail I’ll omit for those who like their rambling, shaggy-dog tales to have at least an ounce of narrative. Ultimately, this event pushes the deadbeat Moondog to pursue finishing and publishing his book, a journey that brings him to prison, rehab, fishing boats, party boats, burning boats and beyond.
Along the way, we’re introduced to a rotating cast of colorful characters, including Jonah Hill as Moondog’s literary agent with a laugh-out-loud, low country accent and Zac Efron as a coked-up Christian rocker with a beard cut that was literally inspired by a panini. When combined with some genuinely wonderful slapstick comedy (e.g., Moondog pushes a man playing a tuba into the harbor), these performances help seal The Beach Bum as the funniest movie I’ve seen this year. Korine might not write the tightest scripts, but Florida has taught him how to write a joke.
If this all starts to sound like a Judd Apatow stoner comedy, don’t get it twisted—Korine breaks out the art-school editing and Benoît Debie cinematography to remind you he’s still the pretentious film brat he’s always been. It’s all very intriguing and rather beautiful, especially when considered with the killer soundtrack, featuring Peggy Lee, the Cure and Jimmy Buffett, who is actually in the film, and the joyously weird original score. John Debney brings mischievous strings, a sweet accordion and, of course, the occasional steel drum—as if Korine started making a romantic comedy set in Sicily and then remembered the actual task at hand.
As The Beach Bum meanders toward its satisfying conclusion, it works to resist interpretation. Is this—the suspiciously upbeat tale of an enigmatic man who was called a genius too young and spent the rest of his life messing around—Korine’s first self-portrait? Is it a clever, grinning indictment of the American Dream? Or is it all just some big, bullshit cover-up for the director running out of ideas and choosing an extended vacation with McConaughey and a kilo of weed instead of real work? We may never know the answer, but when the destination is this much fun, does it really matter how we got here? ◆
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Jimmy Buffett, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence and Jonah Hill. Written and directed by Harmony Korine. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Seaport, Somerville, South Bay and in the suburbs.