By: Trevor Chartrand
In his feature film follow-up to 2013’s Spring Breakers, director Harmony Korine delivers a similarly raunchy, yet dark comedy with this year’s The Beach Bum. Much like Spring Breakers, this latest undertaking by Korine is bound to receive a mixed reaction from most moviegoers.
In the film, Matthew McConaughey plays ‘Moondog,’ an aimless hippie-stoner living on royalties from poetry collections written in his younger years. Following the death of his wife Minnie (Isla Fisher), he loses everything due to a caveat in her will: he must publish his latest poetry collection before he can acquire his inheritance. Moondog spends the rest of the movie procrastinating writing his book, dancing and drinking the nights away with a series of like-minded slackers all along the Florida beaches.
While McConaughey does an excellent job with his portrayal of Moondog, the character is simply too dark and irredeemable to be sympathetic – even within the context of this goofy comedy. There are some hard hitting moments in this film that are simply brushed off by Moondog. The material is presented in a very real and harsh way, but Moondog’s reactions belong in a much more lighthearted film. Moondog lives with an easygoing ‘wherever the wind takes me’ philosophy, and while there’s some vicarious entertainment in seeing someone so carefree, it’s still almost unbearable to sit through his endlessly irresponsible actions. There’s just not enough here to redeem the character; he’s a wandering drunken party animal, and it’s kind of hard to watch.
What’s most entertaining in the film are the performances by supporting actors who cross paths with Moondog, especially Snoop Dogg, Martin Lawrence, and Zac Efron. All three play characters similar to our lead, but they have the likability factor McConaughey is missing. The movie shines when he’s out with any of them, their chemistry gels as they are all a distinct reflection of Moondog and what he stands for. What’s most unfortunate though is that any of these supporting roles could have been cut with no effect on the plot. In other words, the bulk of the film is a series of humorous scenarios with no real repercussions or stakes.
Jonah Hill also appears in the film as Moondog’s literary agent, and unfortunately the actor falls flat with his choice to perform an exaggerated southern accent. We’ve seen some great strides from Hill in recent years and, sadly, this film is not an example of one of them. The most interesting (and most narratively relevant) relationship in the film takes a backseat to all this B-story – that is, Moondog’s daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen) is criminally underutilized in the movie.
Visually, the film relies on handheld camerawork and has a documentary sort of feel, which again makes the darker moments feel more real. However, this is the kind of film that shouldn’t take the dark stuff so seriously. I would almost prefer flat angles with low-brow jokes in these moments. It’s shot for dramatic effect, but played for comedy – sort of the opposite of a comedian playing a silly joke straight-faced. An interesting experiment, but it turns out this strategy doesn’t work the other way around.
Equally frustrating to the mismatched visual style is the odd editing choices in The Beach Bum. Conversations are often spliced together between two different locations, as if two different scenes featuring the same characters are happening simultaneously. And as we cut back and forth, we often hear the same dialogue repeated over and over in a slightly different way – as if the filmmakers are giving us every take they shot of these sequences. With a runtime of only 91 minutes, this bizarre editing is either a stylistic choice or a desperate attempt to pad the runtime with the reuse of multiple takes from the same scene.
Overall, The Beach Bum’s message is a layered and interesting call-to-arms for viewers to speak their minds, to challenge authority and to live life to the fullest, however the man delivering the message isn’t effective enough for it to really make an impact. The heart of the film is a character with no redeemable qualities, a man who is impossible to get behind. If the character doesn’t care about anything, why should the audience? Despite some fleeting funny moments, the passive protagonist is the core problem with The Beach Bum, and is the reason it ultimately fails.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor