Harmony Korine’s back, and this time he’s telling the story of a burnout with no regard for convention or legality, who’s nonetheless a good bloke under it all. Wait.
Korine’s got a soft spot for those on the edge of society, or, at least, those on a specific bit of society’s edge, revelling and rebelling. He is also, it would seem, a fan of America’s East coastline, its humid relaxation.
The Beach Bum is the story of the late re-blooming of Moondog, Matthew McConaughey’s vision of a beat poet grown old, a shaggy literary mind whose predilection towards drugs and alcohol know no bounds. A celebrated writer back in the day, he’s fallen on hard times artistically, struggling to produce his magnum opus.
He’s urged on by his sometime wife Minnie, Isla Fisher in good form, and their mutual muse Lingerie (Snoop Dogg reading lines in his Snoop Dogg voice). Plot is secondary for much of the picture, though. This is less a movie about Moondog’s journey to artistic redemption, and more an attempted exploration of his experience of the world.
It’s one of luminous clothing, constant drinking and drugs, and connections made with anyone who cares to cross paths. It’s unclear whether Moondog just knows everyone in Florida, given the affection he is met with at all turns, or whether he’s just that magnetic.
And McConaughey is resplendent here. He’s embedded utterly, drawling and grinning constantly, before occasionally segueing into poetic deliveries that are exquisitely pretentious, despite his protestations. He seems constantly emotional in a distant manner, tears often streaking his face, and his joyful abandon is Korine’s greatest asset.
The supporting cast are more hit-and-miss. Snoop’s no actor, regardless of how you cut it, though his part largely allows him to essentially play himself to amusing effect. Jimmy Buffet’s here too. This all seems an odd play by Korine, putting his mood at risk by hiring in what feel like names for the sake of it.
Fisher is game, meanwhile, and an extended cameo from Zac Efron is the highlight. He gives a quick portrait of a bible thumping boy gone off the rails, electric excitement bubbling away, and love of Christian metal undiminished.
He also exemplifies all that’s good about The Beach Bum – a young man doing bad things, for complex reasons, presented without judgement and, if anything, advertised for. It’s challenging, and the same goes for Moondog’s relentlessly selfish and dangerous behaviour.
Yet his joie-de-vivre is inescapably endearing. Korine rides it, using it to get away with some of the film’s clear shortcomings. There are moments of oddly mainstream comedy that fall flat, including baffling gore and death. Jonah Hill, meanwhile is on career-worst form as Moondog’s agent. His bizarre, temperamental Southern drawl is a glaring directorial mistake gone uncorrected.
The Beach Bum is a hard film to judge. It presents a philosophy of near-solipsism, or of joy, depending on your mood. It does so with some beauty and restraint in some places – its long closing and credits shot is a masterpiece. Yet it also indulges in trite materialism and unfunny slapstick.
It’s a film that is true to itself, then, which is something – its flaws are worn on its sleeve.