In most cases, homelessness is an unenviable, pitiable thing. The sight of human beings buried in a pile of dirty clothes, blankets and detritus on a cold city street is nearly apocalyptic, a vision of the end of the road. However, the sight of coastal “beach bums” evokes admiration, even perhaps a bit of jealousy; they’re buried in a sandy shore rather than a concrete jungle, a beer in one hand and an old, busted radio scratching out classic rock tunes in the other. In the rat race, “work-or-die” country we’ve all collectively decided it’s okay to live in, such people don’t read as an example of failure for losing at (or more likely, choosing not to play) the game. Instead, they seem like they’ve successfully pulled off a con, a life hack, cashing in by opting out. The sight of them littering tiki bars and surf shops is also a little apocalyptic, but evokes an Armageddon where the end of the world was brought on by some really good drugs; a much mellower place.
Writer-director Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, as its title plainly states, is about such a character. Korine’s body of work generally concerns fringe communities of people who, for one reason or another, have checked out of the expected norms society has assigned them. Adolescents using NYC and their newfound sexuality as a playground, twenty-somethings who are perpetually on “sprang break,” people who hump trash — Korine looks at these people with affection, yet there always lurks a sense of impending doom in the background, a feeling that these hedonistic existences are ultimately unsustainable. With The Beach Bum’s Moondog, Korine essays his most pure hedonist, an ex-writer and poet who long ago left behind such concepts as ambition and success and instead flits from beach to beach like a mascot or good-time fairy, welcomed by all, rejected by none. None, that is, besides his young daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), who, when she inherits a fortune from her wealthy mother (a delightful Isla Fisher), gives Moondog an ultimatum that he must finish a new book before he’s allowed to move into the family mansion again.
What Korine seems to be setting up is the standard stoner/slacker comedy character arc, where the perpetual screw-up with a hidden talent applies himself and achieves more than he ever thought possible. But The Beach Bum is thoroughly unconcerned with this. Sure, Moondog manages to write a new manuscript, and yes, he gets (and gets away with) more than he ever dreamed, but it’s all ultimately just another color in the rainbow of his life — “rainbow” being the operative word there, as the film is easily Korine’s most gorgeous looking yet. He and cinematographer Benoit Debie bathe the frame in warm, inviting neons and blues, giving the whole movie a blissed-out look to go along with its vibe. Korine and editor Douglas Crise take the feeling a few steps further, as Korine shoots scenes in multiple locations, allowing a single conversation to exist in several places at once. It’s a technique that sets the film off-balance in a way that, like a good drug trip, disorients and distorts in a pleasing rather than uncomfortable fashion. Maybe these conversations have happened multiple times before, maybe they’re happening over an extended period of time, maybe Moondog is just perpetually unsure of where he is — whatever the case, it’s the mood that matters, the pleasure of the experience, rather than the details. The film has an experimental spirit in its overall structure, too, as it becomes a road movie with Moondog encountering characters like Zac Efron’s constantly vaping ex-rehab patient one moment before moving on to see Martin Lawrence’s dolphin tour boat captain the next, yet it never feels like Moondog is traveling all that far, and certainly not with any purpose. He’s like a leaf on the wind, or more accurately a bottle in the ocean, bringing a message of peace and poetry to everyone he meets.
In a Q&A conducted at South by Southwest following The Beach Bum’s premiere, Korine addressed Moondog’s poetry career, clarifying that his actual writings weren’t as important as his actions, that “the poetry is the life.” This is why the film’s central coup is casting McConaughey as Moondog, which is one of the relatively few casting choices in cinema history that can unequivocally be called perfect. The actor’s real-life persona is his “poetry,” and were it not for the fact that the real McConaughey is a clearly sober individual, The Beach Bum could double as a documentary or a biopic about the laconic, thoughtful, philosophy-spouting artist. To say he inhabits the role feels like too small a description, as he effortlessly slides between scenes with other well-established actors to celebrities like Jimmy Buffett playing themselves to Korine’s trademark homeless performers and never seems less than authentic. Like fellow stoner/slacker icon Jeff Bridges and The Dude (The Big Lebowski), McConaughey makes Moondog into an instant dorm room hero, a party god who greets everyone and everything that comes his way with the same level of acceptance. It makes the movie a little slight, as Moondog is never really challenged — even the judge who sentences him to a year in rehab is a self-professed fan. Yet, just as with McConaughey the actor, Moondog’s joy and constantly sunny outlook is infectious, his contradictions fascinating, and his character perfect as the center of the ultimate hangout movie.
The Beach Bum is undoubtedly Harmony Korine’s friendliest movie, as the filmmaker tones down his Jean-Luc Godard meets John Waters envelope-pushing tendencies and alienating techniques, yet there’s still a lot of edge to be found in the film. Moondog’s prolific writing career is called into question when he admits to Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) that he ripped off a D.H. Lawrence poem in order to win a contest, and given that he reads other famous poems as his own, the film might be trying to hint that he’s not all that honest about his talent. The Beach Bum isn’t shy about depicting nudity and sex, creating a frisson about just how far it’s willing to go. Just as with Korine’s other movies, the environment Moondog lives in is volatile, and people around him get seriously hurt or even killed. In an early scene, Moondog reads a poem that begins, “one day I will swallow up the world,” an apocalyptic promise if there ever was one. What’s so remarkable about The Beach Bum is how the movie depicts just what the world would look like if Moondog swallowed it up, and how that might not be a bad thing after all. If this is how the world ends, not with a bang, but with a bong, then bring on Armageddon, man.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.