Writer-director Harmony Korine is somewhat of a king in underground American cinema, with stories about derelict people who we probably wouldn’t care much about unless accompanied by a bright and loud presentation. The Beach Bum is undoubtedly more accessible than Korine’s previous endeavor, Spring Breakers, but still just as self-aggrandized. It reminds me of 1998’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, but more enjoyable due to a coherent agenda and lack of overbearing voice over. However, the film still possesses Fear and Loathing’s annoyingly loose-ended plot points, which just adds to Beach Bum’s dreamlike state.
Matthew McConaughey plays Moondog, a poet who never fully realized his potential, despite not having many fans in his prime. Over the years, we see how he’s become sort of a cult favorite. And he’s learned to cope with that bad timing through drinking and doing drugs. He’s constantly under the influence of some substance throughout the whole movie.
His wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), urges him to finish his book–what he claims is the next great American novel–but he’s fine just living a hedonistic life in his small house boat in the Florida Keys. Meanwhile, Minnie is back in Miami at their mansion preparing for the wedding of their daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen). We’re asked early on to accept Moondog’s truly bizarre family dynamic, which is fine, but it doesn’t help the fact that hardly anyone in this movie is likable. After a tragic incident, Moondog is forced to finally finish his book. But that doesn’t mean he’s any less distracted by the debauchery he’s surrounded himself with.
McConaughey has the right mix of weird and charisma for this role. Moondog is a quasi-caricature of his own carefree self. He sports a memorable style and specific idiosyncrasies, even if his performance doesn’t require much range or fluctuation. We see him interacting with different characters throughout the film, each with his or her own quirks or oddities, and each one he handles with a high pitched giggle no matter how he or she affects him.
I’m struggling to find a theme other than “just have a good time in life,” but the best I can come up with is subtle satire of the entitled and self-worshipping upper class. Beach Bum does serve as an intriguing character analysis, but also doesn’t give us much drama. And Moondog’s attitude is so carefree that any conflict that does arise doesn’t feel like conflict at all, doing the plot a disservice. The series of events is consistently unforced, but also somewhat uneventful. Not uninteresting, but more “why should we care?”.
Being the main cause of the frequently uneven tone, the humor in this film is still the best part. It’s beyond subtle–downright hidden unless you’re keen to it. My favorite bit comes from Martin Lawrence’s character, Captain Wack, continuously bringing up his time in ‘Nam, despite definitely being too young. But seemingly “important” characters like Captain Wack are brought about suddenly and then forgotten about just as hastily.
The Beach Bum is filled with an overload of stream-of-conscious narrative, playing out as more of a surrealistic allegory on how destructive hedonism is. The film tries providing a normal storytelling at the beginning, but abandons that for a sort of disconnected series of events, only to try and bookend itself with more storyline towards the end. The film is one giant spontaneous party montage interspersed with some semblance of plot with characters we don’t really like much. Luckily, the neon colors and kinetic camerawork keep us from looking away, but this movie just doesn’t leave us thinking about it long after we leave.