FILM REVIEW – THE BEACH BUM. With Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence. Written and directed by Harmony Korine. Rated R for pervasive drug and alcohol use, language throughout, nudity and some strong sexual content. 95 minutes.
Writer-director Harmony Korine’s THE BEACH BUM is the ne plus ultra of “Awlright, awlright, awlright.” The title character – called Moondog by his friends and various law enforcement officials – is a blissed-out manifestation of full-bongo McConaughey-isms. A literary legend married into exorbitant wealth, Moondog now spends his perpetually zonked nights and days crawling the Florida keys as the life of a never-ending party. It’s funny because this is exactly what most us already assume Matthew McConaughey is doing whenever the camera isn’t rolling.
Wearing a raggedy wig, flip-up shades, yellowed teeth and a variety of gaudy swimwear (both men’s and ladies’) that comes in colors with names like “electric volcano,” McConaughey’s Moondog is a gonzo good ol’ boy made up of nothing but sunniness and positive vibes. There are no hangovers, drunken rages nor any ravages of addiction, and nobody even gets angry when he’s late for his daughter’s wedding because he was busy boning the lady at the burger stand. (Playfully spanking her ass with a greasy spatula is the closest the character ever comes to violence.)
Moondog’s many idiosyncrasies and daily infidelities are shrugged off by his ridiculously rich wife (played with a touching wistfulness by Isla Fisher) and the movie’s most romantic interlude finds these two dancing on a dock to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” The lyrics serve as something like the movie’s mission statement: “If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing/Let’s break out the booze and have a ball/If that’s all there is.”
“The Beach Bum” doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of slight speed bumps that barely slow down our libertine hero’s hedonasistic pursuits. Moondog constantly escapes from any consequences of his actions and accomplishes everything with a comically bare minimum of effort, much to the seething resentment of his long-suffering literary agent (Jonah Hill, doing a cornball Colonel Sanders accent someone really should have talked him out of.)
“Life’s a rodeo,” Moondog explains, “I’m gonna suck the nectar out of it and fuck it rawdog until the wheels come off,” demonstrating a somewhat diminished aptitude for metaphors that nonetheless doesn’t interfere with his poetry winning a Pulitzer Prize. Whether you’ll find this all enormously entertaining or mindlessly monotonous depends on your tolerance for this sort of thing. I had a good time but will admit it makes for a long 95 minutes.
It is a trip to see the Harmony Korine of “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers” working with big movie stars on a broad comedy that plays in shopping malls, while somehow also staying true to his raggedly obnoxious DIY aesthetic. Like its protagonist, “The Beach Bum” exists only in the present tense, with scenes cut on top of each other so that single conversations flow through different setups, locations and time periods like a wastrel’s stream of semi-consciousness.
Yet for as much as the movie has been reverse-engineered from McConaughey’s offscreen persona, I still found myself slightly disappointed in his performance simply because there are no surprises in it. I get that the guy is supposed to just “abide” like Jeff Bridges’ Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” but such a reading willfully overlooks all the pissy little petulant grace notes with which Bridges shaded his now-iconic character. Moondog is missing the undercurrent of malevolence that makes McConaughey so memorable. He’s more appealing when he’s a little dangerous.
The motley supporting cast, however, is superb. “The Beach Bum” boasts shockingly credible turns from both Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett, while Zac Efron is gutbustingly funny as a devout, born-again Christian who runs around committing whatever sins he feels like “because Jesus already died for them.”
Still, the movie’s nearly stolen outright by Martin Lawrence as the aptly named Captain Wack, a dolphin-tour boat proprietor who owns a cocaine-addicted parrot and could stand to brush up a bit on the differences between dorsal fins. Returning from an eight-year hiatus from the big screen, Lawrence isn’t just hilarious here – he seems touchingly invested in the character and his dreams.
Presumably by design, “The Beach Bum” is missing the kamikaze sociopolitical sting of Korine’s last picture, “Spring Breakers.” Hill’s got a terrific line in which he remarks that “the great thing about being rich is that you can be awful to be people and they have to take it.” But the movie is a bit too blissful to venture very far down that road, perhaps out of fear it might cause a hangover in a film that defiantly doesn’t believe in them.•••
Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.