As the title character of The Beach Bum, Harmony Korine’s shaggy new comedy of dirtbag decadence, Matthew McConaughey renders redundant any further parodies of Matthew McConaughey. Sporting a shoulder-length mop of dirty blonde hair and a wardrobe of unbuttoned Aloha shirts, the actor is exaggerating the stereotype of Florida burnout hedonism—think “crab catchers,” in 30 Rock parlance. But he’s also riffing on his own surfer-goofball star persona, down to the abs he keeps rather perennially exposed. Has McConaughey ever pushed his narcotized unflappability this far over the top into caricature? He doesn’t need to drawl out a trademark “All right, all right, all right” to complete the impression of a famous actor indulging his cult of memeable personality.
Moondog, as McConaughey’s character is more officially identified, spends his every waking moment in single-minded pursuit of pleasure. He slams tall boys of PBR, smokes blunts the size of police batons, drives a speedboat straight out of Miami Vice in zigzagging circles, pounds on a piano, bangs on a drum wrapped in a giant tropical snake, fucks unabashedly in public, and kicks strangers off the dock for fun. And that’s all in the first 10 minutes. The Beach Bum’s biggest joke, maybe its best one, is that this renaissance man of dipshit easy living is also a literary giant, a poet revered in polite company. Maybe that’s why he seems to get away with every screw-up and transgression. It can’t hurt either that he married into fabulous wealth, the ultimate insulator.
Who but the ringleader of repellant backwater geek shows like Gummo and Trash Humpers could build a whole movie around a one-man parade of pure id? Moondog, one suspects, would get along swimmingly with most 0f Korine’s other misfit deviants—and perhaps especially with Alien, the gun-toting emcee desperado James Franco so memorably portrayed in the writer-director’s last movie, Spring Breakers. The Beach Bum returns not just to the gorgeously scuzzy Sunshine State bacchanal of that instant cult sensation, but also to its seductive sense of style: the dreamy smears of tropical nightlife color, coupled with a fluid flood of montage that’s somewhere between MTV and Terrence Malick’s latter-day streams of consciousness. This may be Korine’s most accessible and deceptively lighthearted movie. But it only looks like a goof.
Rather than bounce McConaughey’s cackling crackpot against any kind of foil or straight man, The Beach Bum surrounds him with supporting players only a hair less outrageous: Jonah Hill, doing a hilarious Colonel Sanders accent as the owner of a country club; Martin Lawrence as a self-proclaimed dolphin expert who feeds cocaine to his pet parrot; Zac Efron as a rehab escapee with a haircut inspired by a panini. There’s little plot and even less in the way of conflict. Called home to Miami by his laidback bombshell wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), Moondog nearly misses and then ruins the wedding ceremony of his daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen)—a deadbeat father move for which he’s rather promptly forgiven. Later, Korine threatens to confront the party animal with real loss and tragedy of his own making. Moondog shrugs it off, though. He is immune to guilt and repercussion. His mellow cannot be harshed.
The film never quite comes down, either. It just keeps flowing forward, from one absurdist bender to the next, propelled by the boardwalk jukebox sounds of Eddie Money, Bertie Higgins, and of course Jimmy Buffet. There’s a collage quality to Korine’s filmmaking—a sense that he’s always just collecting moments, cobbling together scenes from the endless supply of improvised festivity that presumably erupted on set. (If the film has a defining image, it’s of McConaughey leading a mob of vagrants into a mansion, like Luis Buñuel’s scandalous Viridiana reimagined as a Death Row-era music video.) Some of this nonstop shitkicking is funny, though it’s also basically interchangeable: Pick at random a few minutes of the movie and they will resemble any other few minutes. That, of course, is very much in the spirit of Moondog’s routine of arbitrary excess. Caught in a perpetual stupor, unburdened by anything resembling a care or responsibility, he’s living an American dream of doing nothing always, of blowing every available second on his appetites.
Korine isn’t really celebrating this nonstop celebration. For all the sanctioned, exhausting “fun” of McConaughey’s shtick, this is still a movie from the guy who launched his career with the script for Kids, that grim cautionary tale—a kind of sex-negative Reefer Madness for paranoid ’90s parents—about what America’s youth are really getting up to. Korine, a scold in countercultural drag, has simply learned to couch his screeds in irony and shit-hot style: Spring Breakers, his best movie to date, got its juice from the way it rather amusingly adopted the voice-over perspective of its shallow sensation-junkie heroines, presenting their pointless crime spree in the grandiose terms they’d prefer. The Beach Bum, by turn, seems to exist in the hazy headspace of its protagonist, a kindred spirit in less-than-lofty, party-till-you-puke ambition. But there’s a bummer relevance lurking in his fantasy of a rich idiot who does whatever he wants and faces no consequences for his actions. This week, especially, that’s a scenario that could give you a hangover, even if Moondog’s never arrives.