When watching the works of writer and director Harmony Korine, it's important to remember that he loves life’s oddities. He thrives in what conventional audiences would interpret as vulgar. He keeps his gaze fixated on what gets swept under the rug.
In the hands of any other director, The Beach Bum, his latest feature, would emphasize its protagonist's lifestyle of excess over his endearing search for existential meaning. But even with Korine's history of unlikeable protagonists, he has a remarkable knack for getting an adamant fanbase to love even the messiest characters.
The Beach Bum stars Matthew McConaughey as Moondog, an eccentric poet and self-admitted alcoholic who types to his heart’s content with a joint between his fingers, all while draped in an oversized romper. After his wife dies in a car accident, her legal representation informs Moondog that unless he finishes his novel poetry collection, he will not receive any money from his wife’s estate.
Upon first glance, Moondog would be perceived as the type of person to root against. He’s a self-absorbed drug addict who cheats on his wife constantly and shoves aside the concerns of those around him in favor of his own hedonistic desires. When conflict is introduced, it does not inspire a fundamental change in Moondog’s behavior, approach to life, or treatment of those around him.
Korine has plenty of experience writing the detestable figures of everyday life in films such as Kids and Spring Breakers, and Moondog appears to be an otherwise relaxed composite. He is driven by desire in the form of sex, booze and weed, but there’s also an aura about him that, when in the presence of friends, servants, and even strangers, transforms him into a visionary.
Korine presents an interesting conflict in his narrative — but not in the way one might think. Sure, the reward of his wife’s inheritance grants Moondog a reason to complete his writing, but it serves more as a reason to move him forward as an artist and an individual. He is able to transcend — or at least try to ascend — his status as a bloated “bottom-feeder” washed ashore.
But even with the conflict firmly established, it still takes time for Moondog to make any progress. The first 20 minutes of the film feel like McConaughey got high with Snoop Dogg, and Korine called it a movie. It takes a lot of patience to sit through nearly 30 minutes of reasons why you should leave the theater.
The usage of montage in the film’s introduction gives the impression that it's cut to act as a trailer for the following hour and a half. Exchanges between Moondog, his publisher, his wife, and Snoop as his best friend (a rapper named Lingerie; cue children laughing) are edited to where fleeting conversations take place in several different locations. Statements begin in point a, continue in points c, d, and e, and conclude in point f. This is made even worse when these exchanges take place during different times of day. It is cartoonish and convoluted, but not creative.
Eventually, the patient viewer is (to some extent) rewarded by scenarios that show why Moondog dons such a morally questionable persona. Deep down, this is a film about an individual who wants to be remembered through the outlandish experiences he has with his friends. This includes everyone from a paint-huffing arsonist in bellbottoms (Zac Efron) to a dolphin cruise captain that gets attacked by a shark (Martin Lawrence).
Harmony Korine’s filmography is composed of caricature-driven pieces spawning from moments of people-watching. The point of these films is not to judge the morality of these characters; neither they nor the director are concerned with it. The point is to showcase a corner of the human experience. The point is sheer curiosity.
The Beach Bum is a perfect addition to this collection, but those unfamiliar with the director’s work best be warned that Harmony Korine is an acquired taste. And for those familiar with the filmmaker, rest assured: The Beach Bum might not be on the same level as his most noteworthy achievements, but it’s a pleasure to know he’s still working.