The Beach Bum is not the film we need, but maybe the one we deserve

Matthew McConaughey in The Beach Bum

It really does feel too easy. From the very first shots of a drunken Matthew McConaughey in a matching tropical shirt/short combo stumbling through the streets of Key West, The Beach Bum feels on-the-nose. Our image of McConaughey has always been of a shirtless, bongo-playing stoner, the kind of idealized figure of so many wizened, sunburnt burnouts that pepper beach towns across the world. McConaughey’s done plenty to support this image of himself, whether or not it’s accurate; it’s become so prevalent that this is the second movie this year in which he plays a guy who lives on a boat… and we’re still in March. As his character (known by all — and I mean all, everywhere he goes — as Moondog) rolls around the docks with a newly discovered, snow-white kitten, The Beach Bum feels… well, obvious.

And yet there’s nothing obvious about Harmony Korine’s second neon-soaked yacht-rock bad trip — it’s even slacker and more aesthetically heightened than Spring Breakers, a sort of sunscreen-soaked picaresque journey through the nightmare world from which many a Florida Man has sprung. It’s not clear to me whether Korine thinks Key West is the greatest place on Earth or the last fiery level of hell — it often feels like both. For Moondog, it’s certainly paradise — it’s where he lives part-time, seducing tourist women and smoking pegleg-sized joints while “working” on his poetry. Once a promising and adulated poet, Moondog has since turned to a life of pure hedonism in the Keys — a life more or less funded by his rich heiress wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) who keeps a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy while simultaneously entertaining an extramarital liaison with high-living hustler Lingerie (Snoop Dogg).

Putting The Beach Bum into words makes it sounds like it has a structure, a purpose, a story to tell. I suppose that, deep down in there, it does; things do eventually happen. Moondog returns to the mainland to attend his daughter’s (Stefania LaVie Owen) wedding; he reconnects with his wife but, in the midst of a heavily intoxicated “date night,” she crashes her car and dies. The most motivation for anything The Beach Bum ever presents ensues: Minnie has opted to withhold Moondog’s half of his inheritance unless he finishes (and publishes) his novel. Responsibility doesn’t come easily to Moondog; immediate and absolute pleasure is his own political and moral conviction, which means he tends to get tied up with sundry weirdos and eccentrics of all types.

The Beach Bum unfolds as an everflowing stream of debauchery and hedonism in which even the biggest events in Moondog’s life are treated with the same go-with-the-flow bleary-eyed enthusiasm as a line of blow offered by dolphin enthusiast Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), a Creed-headbanging sesh from a rehabbing pyromaniac (Zac Efron) or his various canoodlings with women of all stripes. The Beach Bum essentially plays out like one long party montage that flows greasily from setpiece to setpiece — that also means that a lot of the film is basically padding, footage of McConaughey in a thong typing away or lapping up PBR from his kitten’s bowl that breaks up the more outrageous moments.

It’s a mostly successful venture, although anyone who thought Spring Breakers was an inane aesthetic wankoff is certainly not going to find this a step in the right direction. Part of the appeal of Spring Breakers was how unclear it made its separation between celebration and ironic detachment; The Beach Bum makes no such claims. It’s sort of a utopian fable, set in a world almost completely detached from “the mainland” in which law and order presumably rule. Despite his often-abhorrent behaviour, nearly everyone loves Moondog — even random passersby he steals drinks from. Minnie constantly brushes off his behaviour as a sort of charming eccentricity more than excused by his brilliance; even his daughter contends that, while he might be a jerk, he is a great man and a genius. The fact that this might not be true at all looms large, but Korine’s hazy perspective and relentless pacing place Moondog as a sort of idiot savant, unmoving in the centre of constant turmoil.

It helps that McConaughey is excellent at making this out-of-control agent of chaos feel more impish and likeable than he ever should (though I imagine this will not apply to everyone). Much of The Beach Bum at least feels improvised, with roving handheld camera work and choppy editing making sense of the non-sequitur nonsense spewed by Moondog and his pals. This improvised (or at the very least loosely scripted) nature is probably where most of the flaws arise, leading to way too many scenes of McConaughey just flopping around drunk or causing some mild Trash Humpers-inspired ruckus. For a 95-minute film that seems like it never lets up and contains so much insanity that it becomes hard to recall even while you’re watching it, The Beach Bum spends a lot of time flailing around.

Nevertheless, there’s something extremely compelling about its grotesque American spirit, its hedonistic pursuit of pleasure at all costs. In a way, it represents a 2019 riff on Being There, about how a man with outwardly very simple and specific needs becomes an aspirational figure of some sort. Though the films could not be more different tonally, they manage to meet somewhere in the middle. As grotesque and vulgar and altogether slight as The Beach Bum might be, it’s a weirdly warped reflection of the times — and also, Snoop Doog plays a guy named Lingerie who has a Christmas tree made of weed in his basement.

He also jams the theme song with Jimmy Buffett. Not the film we need, but maybe the one we deserve, etc. ■

The Beach Bum opens in theatres on Friday, March 29. Watch the trailer here:

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