Beach Bum is an extremely controversial and highly entertaining stoner dramedy.
It stars Matthew McConaughey, and it was well directed by the maverick Indy film
maker, Harmony Korine, who tends to polarize critics and repel mainstream film
audiences. Although most viewers would be probably be utterly revolted by the
film, I found myself carried away by its anarchic momentum.
This film reminded me of Buffalo 66, because it seems like it was made up by the
film makers as it went along which corresponds perfectly to the main character’s
spontaneous seize-the day-lifestyle. As I left the film I was tempted to scream
out “Future cult classic.”
Beach Bum has gotten mostly mixed and terrible reviews, and it had the lowest
ever opening weekend gross of any film starring Matthew McConaughey. The film
might be bombing because it is too experimental for Matthew McConaughey fans and
too conventional for Korine aficionados.
Matthew McConaughey has had his share of both box office/aesthetic triumphs
including Dazed and Confused (1993), A Time to Kill (1996), Amistad (1997),
Contact (1997), Killer Joe (2011), Mud (2012), Magic Mike (2012),
Wolf of Wall Street (2013),
Dallas Buyers Club (2013), and
His all-time nadir was probably one of first films, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The
Next Generation (1994). That film was so bad that several members of the film’s
cast (they were nobodies who later became stars) tried to legally prevent its
Harmony Korine is a cult director who did Gummo (which got a whopping 26%
approval on Rotten Tomatoes), Trash Humpers, and my favorite of his films,
Julian Donkey Boy, which I consider a masterpiece of amateurishness.
His biggest financial success was the recent Spring Breakers (2012) which
actually made good use of Selena Gomez, but his biggest critical success was
Kids (which he only scripted) which was nominated for several Independent Spirit
awards. His most transgressive work was his 1998 film The Diary of Anne Frank Pt
II, which features kids in satanic apparel throwing up on a Bible, and a man in
black-face dancing and singing My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean. If you go see it
you might want to leave the kids at home.
Korine was heavily influenced by both the cinema of transgression (which often
shows disgusting acts that are too graphic for most film makers to use) and
mumble core (which features naturalistic acting and long, rambling conversations
about trivial subjects that most audience members would consider to be boring or
pointless.) In Beach Bum about 10 minutes is spent on a conversation between two
stoned men on the TV series Flipper.
Beach Bum revolves around the exploits of Moondog, a stoner
writer/drifter/adventurer/alcoholic who spends most of his life too out of it to
process what is going on around him. In one scene, Moondog calmly watches as a
shark eats off his friend’s limb then he congratulates his dying friend because
he thinks it is a great gag.
Moondog is a kind of a third rate Hunter S Thompson or bargain basement Charles
Bukowski. He writes some of the worst verse I have ever heard, which he
frequently recites in front of adoring audiences. He thinks he is a genius, and
remarkably everyone around him seems to share that opinion.
Moondog’s intentionally dreadful poetry is thematically and structurally similar
to Harmony Korine’s own verse, but Korine’s poetry is much more interesting.
Check out Korine’s book, A Crackup at the Race Riots which is being sold at some
of the theatres showing the film. I immediately devoured the whole thing right
after I saw the film, and it is great fun.
Like our current president, Moondog seems to have no idea what is appropriate
subject matter for polite conversation for a person in a civilized society. When
he encounters a nice family of tourists, he talks endlessly about the best
places to see dolphin orgies while the kids cover their ears.
The irresponsible Moondog has spent a long time traveling, partying and having
sex with multiple women (often at the same time). He eventually returns home for
his daughter’s wedding (to a man he affectionately refers to as "limp d*ck". He
almost ruins the wedding which is near the water, when he arrives late and then
immediately pushes an elderly woman in a wheelchair into the ocean as he
announces, “That was my mother. Just kidding.”
His best friend, Lingerie (yes that is his name), who is played by rapper, Snoop
Dogg (who is almost always entertaining on screen) officiates the wedding. Later
on, Moondog is shocked to walk in on Lingerie having anal sex with his wife
(which he quickly forgives which is understandable since he is a frequent
His other best friend is the Florida retirement home rocker, Jimmy Buffet
(playing himself). Moondog frequently joins Buffet onstage during his shows and
does spoken word. This seems extremely appropriate because Moondog is like the
lost character in the song, Margaretville, and if you dig beneath the surface,
he too is a tragic disaster.
But when Moondog’s very wealthy wife (who is well played and sympathetically
portrayed by Sacha Baron Coen’s real life wife, Isla Fisher) unexpectedly dies,
Moondog is faced with a tough choice. According to the wife’s will, he must go
to rehab, get off booze, and finish the novel he is working on or lose his part
of the inheritance.
The film does not have a real plot in a conventional sense, and audience members
can walk in on any part and be entertained (or in some cases disgusted.) I
especially liked the scene where Moondog recites Baudelaire’s poetry in
translation to non-comprehending homeless people. But eventually the film does
have a bizarre payoff which will give some audience members a sense of closure.
With apologies to Nietzsche, this film shows that sometimes when you look into
the abyss, it can actually elevate you. Rarely have I been so utterly captivated
by a movie that has so little artistic merit or aesthetic quality. This goes
against almost everything I usually think constitutes a good film. Yet when I
left the theatre, I felt like anything could happen and that I could do
anything. John Waters’s fans and Andy Warhol admirers should be especially
thrilled to see this.
PS. The great German film maker, Werner Herzog, who is a big supporter of Korine
and starred in Julian Donkey Boy, said he was especially moved by the bacon
taped to the wall during the bathtub scene in Gummo. I cannot think of a higher
recommendation. He also wrote a complimentary blurb for the back cover of A
Crack Up at the Race Riots.