The Beach Bum review: Harmony Korine’s shaggy dog story of an endless summer

Matthew McConaughey plays a layabout writer cruising through life without consequences in this blissed-out picaresque that is more lackadaisical than lazy.

Matthew McConaughey as Moondog in The Beach Bum

Matthew McConaughey as Moondog in The Beach Bum

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum is a superannuated party animal’s utopian fantasy of splashing in the Fountain of Youth, imagining an endless summer existence where the PBR tall boys are always ice cold, there’s always time enough to sleep off any hint of a hangover, and all of it never, finally, gets sad.

The film’s central character is what used to be called a ‘tramp poet’ – à la W.H. Davies and Vachel Lindsay – played by Matthew McConaughey, who goes by the name of Moondog. At the beginning of the film, Moondog, wandering in a blissily inebriate haze along a Key West marina, picks up and adopts a fluffy white kitten. By the end of the film, enough has transpired that one might justifiably presume that more than a year has passed, but the kitten is still a fluffy kitten.

McConaughey’s character takes his name from the great American eccentric Moondog, a blind musician and poet who for decades could be seen wearing a horned helmet on New York’s Sixth Avenue. The sartorial taste of the film’s Moondog runs more towards two-piece loungewear in loud matching prints, fanny packs and bejewelled Uggs. Tanned and tawny, with the physique of an ex-athlete gone to seed and a bloodhound nose for the nearest line of coke, Moondog evokes the shaggy McConaughey of the 1999 nude bongo arrest in Austin.

If his agent is to be believed, Moondog used to be quite successful with his writing. There is, however, no particular reason to put faith in Moondog’s agent, as the performance by Jonah Hill, sporting a plummy bayou accent, is literally unbelievable – though verisimilitude has never precisely been Korine’s strong suit. In one of the film’s final scenes, Moondog accepts a Pulitzer Prize at a function that would look low-rent if it were meant to be a Man of the Year Ceremony for the Fort Lauderdale Better Business Bureau. If Korine feels pressure following up his crossover cult hit Spring Breakers (2012), he doesn’t show it in The Beach Bum, which is relaxed and ambling to the point of moribundity, though jolted to life briefly by the presence of Zac Efron, playing the JNCO-jeans-clad pyromaniac that Moondog meets during a court-appointed stint in rehab.

In Spring Breakers, a quartet of college girls vacation in St Petersburg, Florida, dabbling in crime and even killing before returning to their old lives without facing consequences for their actions. Some took this for satire of scot-free white American privilege run rampant, others just dug the mood of the thing.

The Beach Bum, very much another mood piece, suggests that the latter is nearer to Korine’s intention: he likes people who get away clean, who walk away unscathed from catastrophe after catastrophe. In most movies, Moondog’s rehab stay, ordered after he leads a Zéro de conduite-style raid on the manse he’s been locked out of, would initiate a period of self-analysis and change. In The Beach Bum, it’s just one stopover in this middle-aged picaresque hero’s journey, granted a tropical shimmer and palette of colours usually only seen in boardwalk frozen drinks by Spring Breakers cinematographer Benoît Debie. It is abundantly clear that Moondog doesn’t need to change because, per the testimony of so many people around him, Moondog is awesome, Moondog is a genius with a big ol’ dick and, finally, Moondog knows what’s best for Moondog.

The nearest hint of a storm cloud to cross the clear cerulean sky of his charmed life is a drunk-driving accident that takes the life of his wildly wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher), but even here Moondog is basically in the clear – it was a boozed-up Minnie who was behind the wheel, and so our hero escapes the worst of the guilt. When Moondog first shows up to their manorial estate after a month’s worth of down-and-outer long weekends in the Keys, he plonks down at the piano and plays like a prodigy, and there’s no sense of dislocation in his traversing between class strata in the manner of Jack Nicholson’s Robert Dupea in Five Easy Pieces (1970).

And whereas Abel Ferrara’s superb recent films about working artists – Pasolini (2014) and Tommaso (2019) – heavily emphasise the working aspect, Korine gives us the artist as natural-born, a sybarite who effortlessly excretes poetry. There is no joyousness in the filmmaking here to express the joy of life that Moondog espouses – it’s a work more of lackadaisical enervation than luxuriant laziness – though there is a certain integrity in making a movie about a layabout wastrel that’s so lacking any sense of urgency. The Beach Bum makes the act of making a movie, indeed, of life itself, look easy – a degree of chill that feels at times an awful lot like slack indifference.


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