[The following review contains SPOILERS! You have been warned.]
My recent binge of Harmony Korine’s filmography has been leading up to this glorious moment: a screening of The Beach Bum, the maverick director’s latest theatrical effort. It is, in many ways, his most effortlessly enjoyable movie to date, combining the chaotic tone of Trash Humpers with the slick visual presentation of Spring Breakers—to the benefit of both, miraculously enough.
Matthew McConaughey is perfectly cast as Moondog, an aging, washed-up psychedelic poet drifting through life in a perpetual drug- and alcohol-fueled haze, scraping by on his former glory and his wife’s substantial wealth. Said wife, incidentally, is cheating on him with his best friend/favorite weed hookup Lingerie (Snoop Dogg, basically playing himself—to outstanding effect). But that’s okay; it’s not as though he’s exactly a faithful husband, and he knows that she’s just looking for a warm body to keep her company during his extended “work-related” excursions to Key West. Indeed, the man seems to be utterly impervious to conflict; absolutely nothing bothers him, because he has no discernible goal beyond getting stoned and having a good time.
Despite this narrative looseness, however, The Beach Bum does follow a clearly-defined story structure (a major departure from Korine’s usual approach), hewing to the traditional Hero’s Journey with surprising fidelity. The opening scenes establish the aimlessness of the title character’s day-to-day existence; the sudden death of his wife provides a call to action (in accordance with her will, all of their shared assets will remain frozen until he finally publishes his next book); a brief stint in rehab represents his descent into (and subsequent escape from) the Underworld; as his quest progresses, he meets various allies (including Zac Efron as a punk rock-obsessed pyromaniac with some unique views on religion and Martin Lawrence as the inept captain of a dolphin-watching boat, who proudly boasts that he’s only lost four customers in eight years of giving tours) that give him the knowledge and skills required to overcome the obstacles he encounters; and ultimately, he returns home transformed for the better… assuming that the whole adventure wasn’t merely a concussion-induced hallucination, anyway.
The fact that The Beach Bum not only survives this hackneyed “all just a dream” twist, but is quite possibly elevated by it, is undoubtedly its greatest triumph; like its protagonist, the film is so unapologetically itself that the viewer can’t resist getting swept up in its wake. It finds beauty in vulgarity, celebrating the losers, outcasts, and weirdoes that congregate in South Florida’s grimy underbelly, “going low to get high.” It is, in short, the most succinct, sincere, and successful expression of the themes that Korine has been exploring since the beginning of his controversial career.