Like A Rolling Stoner: Burnout Comedy 'The Beach Bum' Is A Balm
Harmony Korine has spent much of his cinematic career walking his audience through the depths of Hell in films like the poverty-stricken Gummo, the schizophrenic nightmare Julien Donkey-Boy, and his candy-colored, millennial opus Spring Breakers (his first Floridian foray). He's spent some time in Purgatory too (as in his offbeat 2007 drama Mister Lonely, about a commune of celebrity impersonators). In his newest film, The Beach Bum, artist, writer, poet, director Korine may have finally found what he was looking fo all along: a little bit of Heaven.
Narrative and plot don't chug along, machine-like, in any of Korine's work, least of all The Beach Bum; rather, his tale of weirdo hedonistic poet Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) and his quest to finish his Great American Novel for the love of his wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), gently unfurls like ribbons of marijuana smoke from the grizzled mouth of a once-great writer/current drifter. Korine is happy to let his film sail along, luxuriate in particular moments, elliptically recall the past, or burst briefly into the future. If Spring Breakers could be compared structurally to a pop song, The Beach Bum is more like a Jimmy Buffett record (more on him later). Scenery changes mid-conversation, and the movie begs a writer to bust out the word "hallucinatory" to describe its relationship to time and space. It is a pleasant, buoyant, joyful approximation of being happily stoned, with Moondog bubbling from one scenario to the next without too much thought.
In an oversized, barely buttoned canary yellow shirt, McConaughey easily taps into Moondog's hippie-dippy attitude, here defined by a taste for excess rooted in benevolence and a genuine desire to find what little good life has left to offer him. He sails around Key West and Miami, almost floating on air when he's not stumbling about, crab-like, on land. He throws back beers and burns through blunts like a pro, rubbing shoulders with Snoop Dog and Martin Lawrence (owner of a coke-addled parrot), emitting a hyena-like laugh infused with euphoria and kindness. The character waddles along, ready for whatever's next — even when he decides to go to, and promptly skip out on, rehab.
Korine's unusual brand of abrasive, provocative filmmaking (he was the first American director to take the "Vow of Chastity" and make a Dogme 95 film — the Danish manifesto calling for a back-to-basics approach to form), employs guns, drugs, and detritus to signify an atrophying American Dream. For those familiar with his work, the first ten minutes or so of The Beach Bum will unsettle, because the film is imbued with a distinctly un-Harmony-ious tenderness and thoughtful sentimentality. But soon enough, a sun-drenched ecstasy leaches its way into Benoît Debie's cinematography, as does a circuitous manner of exploring Moondog's creative process.
It doesn't really matter if Moondog's poetry is good, by conventional standards. The way he negotiates his art (he is frequently, rightfully or otherwise, referred to as a genius) either eschews artist-movie tropes or subverts them; the film's meandering quality never gives in to the typical rise-and-fall trajectory for Moondog and his work. Rather, it allows him to revel in his method of indulging in "total excess" to unlock his creative juices. Moondog's best friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) offers him one strain of very strong weed which he calls "the safe cracker." Moondog smokes, he has sex, he gets drunk, he writes; rinse, repeat. But unlike other portraits of the artist as a young genius, Moondog knows both the clock is ticking, and that his legacy in question. Yet, as driven as he is to complete his book, he's less fixated on his own relevance; he values basic, sensual pleasures over wealth.
Korine offers moments for Moondog to reflect on the consequences of his actions ... sort of. It's not insincere, but there is a cheekiness to the character's brief determination to clean up his act; he doesn't ditch the excess, but the emotional transformation he's urged to undergo Lingerie and Jimmy Buffett(!) frees him up, and becomes a touching ode to love and art. Korine's film is an unusual but much needed balm, a wild and wonderful guide to finding compassion and beauty in the strangest of places: Florida. I cannot think of another film that represents the perfect confluence of my own sensibilities with those of my father, or of another film that could move me to tears at the sound of "Margaritaville."
Moondog and Minnie play Peggy Lee's existential pop ballad "Is That All There Is?" as they dance around and smoke and drink up each other's bodies and emotions, their love for one another offering a kind of high that narcotics can only approximate. This dizzying, funny, and moving combination of a love for the creative process, and love for the bodies around them, suggest that Korine has finally found in his films the Heaven that his characters have always chased. An American Dream presented as perverted, and decaying, yet splashed in neon and soaked in sunshine, The Beach Bum's brilliant embrace of body, pleasure and art feels like Paradise.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.