“That’s great poetry,” Moondog says near the end of ‘The Beach Bum’, delivering a verdict on his own work. A bit later, after a literally explosive bacchanal during which bales of cash and a sailboat are set alight, he declares the evening “a blast,” inserting an expletive for emphasis.
Those two statements pretty much sum up what this movie, the latest from Harmony Korine, thinks of itself. Chronicling a hectic season in the life of its hero (a defiantly unkempt Matthew McConaughey), ‘The Beach Bum’ is intoxicated by its own shaggy lyricism and committed to an ethic of unapologetic hedonism. Moondog is a genius. He will be the first to tell you so, but everyone else is quick to agree: his wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher); their daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen); Moondog’s agent (Jonah Hill, doing an accent somewhere between Truman Capote and Foghorn Leghorn); the judge (Jo Marie Payton) who sends the poet off to rehab.
Moondog quotes DH Lawrence and Charles Baudelaire from memory, so there’s nothing wrong with his taste. He takes the stage at bars and parties in Key West and other parts of South Florida, reciting off-the-cuff odes that might put you in mind of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg or maybe Henry Miller.
Jimmy Buffett is in this movie, playing himself. Snoop Dogg is in it, too, as Moondog’s drug-dealer best friend, Ray (short for Lingerie), and the high point comes when the two musicians collaborate on an impromptu ballad in Moondog’s honour. There is some other fun stuff, too — beautiful shots of the evening sky over Miami; good-time music that takes you back to the ‘70s and ‘80s; Zac Efron and Martin Lawrence in manic cameos — but nobody sitting in the theatre or on the couch will experience as much pleasure as the people on screen. Available evidence suggests that the movie was a total blast to make.
One of Korine’s distinctions as a filmmaker is his total commitment to his characters. He does not judge, scold or moralise, but follows the misfit children of his imagination as far beyond respectability as they will take him. Sometimes this is repellent, sometimes provocative, sometimes even — in ‘Spring Breakers’, at least — profound. ‘The Beach Bum’ is none of these. Its soul is sentimental, conventional and timid despite its hero’s bravado. Moondog may seem like a fearless free spirit, but the movie he lives in is as risk averse and conflict avoidant as a toddler’s bedtime story.
Like a toddler, Moondog — whose Hawaiian-print suits look like pyjamas accessorised with a diaper-like fanny pack — is a creature of pure narcissistic impulse. Some things happen that might, in other circumstances, put a damper on the good times. Minnie is having an affair with Ray. Heather is getting married. Someone close to Moondog dies, and he is sent off to rehab. Also, an enormous inheritance is held in escrow until Moondog finishes his next masterpiece.
None of this changes anything. It’s not that Moondog overcomes adversity. Adversity doesn’t exist in his universe. Korine’s loyalty to the character — his protective impulse to shield Moondog from any criticism — is so intense that any hint that his behaviour might have troubling implications is banished from consideration. The only person who doesn’t like Moondog is Heather’s fiancé (Joshua Ritter), who is given a demeaning nickname and branded as a hopeless square.
But without anyone or anything to rebel against, Moondog turns into a bore. McConaughey, for his part, tries to locate the limit of his charm and succeeds much too quickly. Wonderful though it is to see him with a white kitten, in homage to Anita Ekberg in ‘La Dolce Vita’, it is less enchanting to be subjected to his gales of forced laughter. At least we can’t smell Moondog’s breath, or see what he is composing on his portable typewriter.
But it’s hard to miss the stale air that surrounds him. What “The Beach Bum” celebrates as transgression is pure tedium. What it takes for divine lunacy is frat house doggerel. The booze flows freely. The women are topless and ornamental. The cars and boats are fast and expensive. There’s nothing much worth writing about.
Don’t miss it!
‘The Beach Bum’ releases in the UAE on May 16.