The Beach Bum
I get it. I get the point.
I have been a defender of Harmony Korine for years. His films are highly polarizing, because the art house bad boy never played by the rules. Gummo was a difficult watch that never even started on a set of rails; it results in a chaotic whirlwind of a world we never met. Julien Donkey-Boy is an even more challenging viewing that puts you in a mindset of pure unadulterated anarchy. Even Spring Breakers (the sole reason why most casual movie goers even know who Harmony Korine is) was an excursion into the unknown: a pink-dyed euphoria fuelled by hedonism and carelessness. I suppose the main difference with these films is that you are getting a bigger picture. Gummo takes place in a town. Julien Donkey-Boy follows a family. Spring Breakers features four friends and the rapper they meet.
The Beach Bum is almost squarely featured around Moondog, and that is a huge problem. Don’t get me wrong. Moondog is interesting to watch. I place that credit squarely on Matthew McConaughey’s shoulders. McConaughey turns an annoying pest of a character into a self-destructive, substance-stuffed time bomb. Otherwise, we feel like we are just watching the stupid antics of a mess of a human being for an hour and a half. Everyone else in the film is a blip in the golden years of Moondog. His wife. His daughter. His friends. His new companions. Jimmy Buffet (yes, actually Jimmy Buffet). All of these people come and go, whether they just vanish or they literally die. But Moondog, yes, he loves to party, and no one can stop him. Life’s too short. Yes. Even though The Beach Bum is an hour and a half, life is indeed too short.
A couple of things make this narcissistic boat ride worth a try. Outside of McConaughey’s nuanced performance (which is saying a lot, given the material), we have some gorgeous cinematography by the extremely underrated Benoît Debie, who I am only waiting to hit the big time soon. Gel lights consume each and every scene, and The Beach Bum becomes a drug-fuelled trip at least. There’s also the occasional moment where the visual aesthetics and John Debney’s score marry, and we finally get a glimpse into what Korine was probably trying to accomplish: an ugly beauty. With some slow-motion shots of pure destruction, and the veering-off into aquatic dream lands, The Beach Bum is not an entire bust.
As a story, though, we see some major downfalls. Everyone has a goofy name, and they refer to each other as if all of this is normal. I get that Korine operates by another plane, and that this kind of asset is normal for his films. However, this film follows one character for the majority of its duration, so all of this operates more like an improv group than a parallel universe to ours. What makes this worse, is that the majority of characters barely even matter, so we don’t get much time to truly figure them out. There is adultery, longing, and anguish, yet none of that matters when partying is pushed to the forefront. Maybe this is a metaphor for how life passes you by when you abuse it with non stop substance consumption. Maybe. I also don’t think The Beach Bum is smart enough to attempt that, though.
I say that, because it is so brief and so passive with any of its statements. Nothing ever really sinks in. Korine’s other films at least feel like fever dreams. This film resembles the annoying vacationer that is already wasted at the all inclusive hotel’s bar at ten o’clock… in the morning. Rather than giving an actual experience of the always-lazy lifestyle, we have our noses rubbed into it with the occasional “philosophical” point. In Gummo, we had satanic black metal setting up a cacophonous tension. Spring Breakers used dubstep to tiptoe between joy and discomfort. Here, we get a bunch of island jams, but nothing to really make us feel anything outside of a shallow sensationalism. There’s no depth. For a film about living by the god damn ocean, there’s no depth.
That’s what frustrates me with The Beach Bum. I see negative reviews surrounding Harmony Korine all of the time, so I wasn’t expecting this film to go any differently. He has a very narrow audience, and I am fine with being a part of it. However, this film misses the point that even his past works have figured out. We usually get a commentary on the sybaritic leisures of the American people in his films; each statement is through a different class, and a different lifestyle. We only get an attempt at viewing the never-ending beach life of Moondog. He goes over here. He goes over there. Someone dies. Someone reforms. Someone else dies. Someone reforms. There are so many misses at actual comments about this type of world in this film. The Beach Bum feels a lot like Moondog: a supposed artist that is actually a lost cause. Waiting so many years after Spring Breakers to see what Korine could conjure up now that he is finally being recognized by the masses, and we get this juvenile introduction to philosophy. It hurts. This one hurts.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.