The joyous cackle of Matthew McConaughey’s Floridian alter-ego Moon Dog echoes through Harmony Korine’s relatively restrained sixth feature The Beach Bum. Near plotless, the film unfolds like one long jam session fronted by McConaughey’s mythological persona. It moves at the pace of a gentle breeze, and drifts through hazy events dulled by clouds of bong smoke and washed out by the striking warm neon colour palette shot by cinematographer Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers, Enter the Void).
95 mins approx
Director Harmony Korine
Moon Dog Matthew McConaughey
Lingerie, ‘Rie’ Snoop Dogg
Minnie Isla Fisher
Heather Stephanie LaVie Owen
Captain Wack Martin Lawrence
Flicker Zac Efron
Lewis Jonah Hill
Like a modern-day Odysseus, Moon Dog sails the Well Hung, a Pabst Blue Ribbon perpetually in hand, bobbing between his Key West bungalow and his wife’s extravagant beachside mansion in Miami. A vibrant Isla Fisher plays the equally free-spirited Minnie, who enjoys her share of lovers and shenanigans while the Dog is off exploring other forms of consciousness. This would seem like a formula for domestic turmoil, but the two are just living it easy. You could say they’re a happy couple.
Moon Dog and Millie’s unconventional romance vaguely comprises the first third of the film, which plays out with the blissful tone of a Golden-Age movie musical. But the dog days of poolside cunnilingus and day drinking are (briefly) interrupted when tragedy prompts Moon Dog to head inland for a stint in rehab.
Dog meets the paint-huffing arsonist Flicker (Zac Efron), reunites with dolphin-tourism entrepreneur Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), and eventually reconvenes with best friend Rie (Snoop Dogg) – short for Lingerie – aboard his party yacht. If there’s any dramatic conflict here, it’s that Moon Dog must publish his new book before he can access his inheritance. But the stakes are an eye-roll nuisance at best, as Moon Dog breezily proves he’s capable of living his best life with or without the funds.
Discussing Harmony Korine’s debut film Gummo, Werner Herzog once famously called the director the “future of American cinema”. Whether or not his resume has fulfilled these expectations is in the eye of the beholder, though it’s undeniable that his films have continued to poke at uncomfortable truths about American culture, from Gummo’s poverty-belt poetry to the lurid underbelly of the You Only Live Once lifestyle in Spring Breakers.
In The Beach Bum, Korine proposes Moon Dog’s hedonistic amblings as virtuous, idealistically removed from the demands of capitalism, uninterested in linear progress and devoid of ambition. With McConaughey as his muse, Korine constructs an American tall tale divorced from notions of puritan morality and work ethic, yet folkloric in scope. That Korine should insert Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett into the Beach Bum universe is fitting, as their artistic personas embody the dream of eternal vacation in which the film resides.
But The Beach Bum makes a mockery simultaneously of its hero and of the idea of inherently ‘great men’ – those arbitrarily bestowed with recognition, fortune and the luxury of indifference. Jonah Hill, who plays Moon Dog’s Vineyard Vines clad literary agent Lewis, observes off-hand the joys of obscene wealth: “You can just be horrible to people and they have to take it.” Cue laugh track.
Korine’s signature acerbic irony feels diminished, and a more assailing social critique is buried beneath layers of loveable soundbites and trivialities. How many ways can Moon Dog top his own ridiculousness? This uninhibited hedonism, paired with the film’s meandering, freewheeling structure, results in a more commercial product, subdued into the mainstream by its insistent, eventually numbing mellow. As for those of us fascinated – or merely titillated – by Korine’s provocative body of work thus far, The Beach Bum is an unexpected turn to the romantic that loses something of the edge we expect from the controversial filmmaker.