When Harmony Korine released his directorial debut Gummo back in 1997, it was a brash introduction to his lasting obsession with bizarre cities and the outcasts who inhabit them. The Xenia, Ohio, shown in that film was a bleak wasteland occupied by glue-sniffing degenerates and disturbed outsiders. His last feature, Spring Breakers, keyed in on the party scene in St. Petersburg, Florida, and heightened the booze-fueled debauchery to a surreal degree. These places don’t merely exist on society’s fringes; they seem to be on a different planet altogether.
Visiting Korine’s worlds is typically an unpleasant time. What separates the Miami setting of The Beach Bum from his other places is just how delightful the stay is. This is yet another tour through American depravity, but it’s also the most uplifting theatrical experience I’ve had all year — a joyful, freewheeling comedy filled with warmth and compassion. The Academy would never acknowledge something this idiosyncratic, and it should be deemed an act of treason when they overlook Matthew McConaughey’s committed performance for a Best Actor Oscar.
Much of The Beach Bum’s effectiveness can be attributed to his glorious turn as Moondog, a washed-up poet who stumbles around murmuring half-baked profundities with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand and an oversized joint dangling from his mouth. In between bouts of getting astronomically stoned and sleeping with random women, he’ll periodically knock out a poem on his typewriter, although not often enough to revive his once-illustrious career.
The closest real-life comparison to Moondog might be gutter poet Charles Bukowski except imagine he’s been fed LSD and left sprawled out in the sun at a Jimmy Buffett concert. (Buffett, in fact, plays a small part in the film as himself.) No doubt drawing from the actor’s actual off-screen persona, the character feels almost 100% McConaughey’s own creation; there isn’t an ounce of self-consciousness in the performance. The actor really lets his freak flag fly here, staggering, lurching and cackling like a maniac and displaying a knack for slapstick seldom seen before now. The tackiness of Moondog’s wardrobe is equally wondrous to behold. He rolls up to a funeral in a garish, flame-decorated swimsuit that looks like it was designed by an 8-year-old while later accepting an award donning a silk dress. Moondog is never dressed to impress. His sole priority is to enjoy himself regardless of the occasion or company present.
Stacked alongside the director’s more experimental work, The Beach Bum follows a relatively straightforward story. An inciting tragedy sends our hero on a quest of sorts through the dirty corners of Miami, and the rest of the film is structured like a series of absurd vignettes detailing Moondog’s escapades with the freaks and miscreants he encounters along the way. Said weirdos populating the supporting cast include Snoop Dogg (playing a thinly veiled version of himself), Martin Lawrence, Zac Efron, and Jonah Hill as the poet’s exasperated agent.
Nearly everyone is game, but Efron is the clear standout as Flicker, a fellow patient whom Moondog meets at a rehab facility. Sporting a pair of wide-legged JNCOs, a vape and truly unfortunate sideburns, Flicker is an appalling piece of Florida trash. In one chilling instance, he freely admits to having been in a Creed cover band. Still, the giddy exuberance Efron brings to the role makes him strangely endearing even when the dangers he poses to civilization become increasingly obvious. The only member of the cast who doesn’t quite gel is Hill, employing a distracting southern twang in his speech that causes his line delivery to fall flat.
Cinematographer Benoît Debie bathes Moondog’s misadventures in lush neon during night sequences and a kitsch color palette recalling those lame airbrush T-shirts you can buy on a pier in Florida. He additionally brings out some of the most indelible imagery of Korine’s career, particularly a slow-motion montage where Moondog leads a cavalcade of homeless vagrants to a pristine mansion (his former home, which he’s kicked out of early in the film) and they proceed to demolish the inside with baseball bats. The contrast between upper-class privilege and poverty-stricken rage creates a powerful image and, like much of the movie, radiates a gleefully anarchic spirit.
Moondog bumbles over life’s obstacles with remarkable ease and zero afterthought. Whenever real-world consequences threaten to kill his buzz, things miraculously resolve themselves. The people closest to him, including his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter, somehow don’t consider his hedonistic lifestyle selfish, even when he deserts them for long stretches of time. Each person in Moondog’s circle insists he is who he is and can’t be blamed for acting on his genuine nature. It’s worth noting how frequently others praise him as a genius and a great man, and all we see is a free-spirited drunk chasing the next good time.
That in mind, it would be easy to read The Beach Bum as a critique of society’s tendency to excuse artists when they act like self-centered idiots and instead label them as troubled geniuses. There may be a bit of truth to that interpretation, yet Korine’s affection for Moondog is evident. The overall tone doesn’t have any of the venom the director spat toward the vapid party animals of Spring Breakers. Every character, no matter how amoral or foolish, is viewed through the same sympathetic lens. Yes, Korine is morbidly fascinated by his subjects, but there’s a tenderness here rarely found in his past work. It doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. Ultimately, the film is similar to Moondog’s life — light on conflict, more concerned with relishing the moment and having a few laughs. Finally, a Florida Man we can all get behind.