Review: The Beach Bum is nihilism masquerading as a stoner comedy

Harmony Korine reminds us how men considered artistic geniuses get a pass, no matter how abhorrent their actions, and then rubs our faces in it

THE BEACH BUM (Harmony Korine). 95 minutes. Opens Friday (March 29). See listing. Rating: NN

Harmony Korine is touting his stoner comedy The Beach Bum as a lighter experience than his last movie, 2012 crime drama Spring Breakers. But despite the change in tone the two films have a lot in common.

Shooting again in South Florida on 35mm with his go-to DP Benoît Debie, Korine tells a similar story of privileged people that are oblivious – even impervious – to hardship.

And just as Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Gucci Mane and James Franco riffed on their popular personae in Spring Breakers, Matthew McConaughey is here in Dazed And Confused stoner-dude mode as Moondog, a once-famous poet who now drifts around Key West getting wasted.

Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Buffett, Zac Efron, Jonah Hill and Martin Lawrence pop up in supporting roles that are essentially fictionalized versions of their public images, except in Buffett’s case, the Margaritaville musician actually plays himself.

The plot is simple: Moondog is a has-been on an endless vacation, filling his days with weed, booze and sex with hot women. He wants for nothing because his equally indulgent wife Minnie (Isla Fischer) is extremely wealthy.

“I forgot how rich we were,” Moondog says upon returning home to their waterfront mansion after spending days somewhere doing whatever. Minnie doesn’t care – she’s having an affair with R&B singer Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). When Moondog finds out, he doesn’t care either. She thinks Moondog is a genius, and that’s good enough for her.

When Moondog’s wealth is seemingly jeopardized – a direct consequence of his reckless behaviour that I will not spoil – he sets out on a wacky journey full of sex, drugs and country music, and encounters a hyper-macho recovering addict named Flicker (Efron) and gonzo dolphin tour guide Captain Wack (Lawrence), along the way.

The twist? No matter what Moondog does, he gets away with it. “He’s a jerk, but he’s brilliant,” his daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen) explains to her straightlaced husband before adding, callously: “You’re dependable.”

The Beach Bum is clearly an homage to Cheech & Chong stoner comedies, replete with crass caricatures – the Jamaican guy smoking a joint the size of a baby’s leg – but this movie is about more than having a good time. It’s really about how we give men who we consider artistic geniuses a pass, no matter how abhorrent their actions.

Heather defends her father, even though he mercilessly bullies her husband, arrives late to her wedding and shoves a wheelchair-bound elderly woman up against the wall in front of wedding guests. (No one flinches. Korine’s camera fleetingly captures the woman crawling on the floor as he foregrounds something else.)

When Moondog fucks an older woman in a greasy spoon’s kitchen while slapping her butt with a hamburger spatula, Korine is in full audience trolling mode.

To top it all off, Moondog’s poetry is cravenly self-serving – it’s inspired by his dick. In fact, within the first 10 minutes of The Beach Bum, you would be as hammered as Moondog if you did a shot for every dick reference. (His boat is called Well Hung.)

And yet, Korine makes it easy for the audience to fall under the spell of Moondog’s lifestyle. He is adept at finding oddball details and filling out scenes with interesting-looking people to create a heightened atmosphere. Debie uses candy-coloured lighting to turn Southern Florida into a fantasy dreamscape, and Douglas Crise’s fluid editing adds to the tranquilizing vibes while managing to move the action along briskly.

Is Korine endorsing Moondog’s behaviour? Parodying it? Or is all this nasty cartoonishness an honest attempt to reflect white American life and the disturbing effects of wealth inequality?

It’s all of the above. He continually reinforces Moondog’s worldview by filling the movie with stereotypes. All the people of colour are either servants or sex objects who exist to attend to the pleasures and whims of the white characters, including Snoop’s Lingerie. All the women exist to vocalize the genius mythology underpinning the story while the men, like his agent Lewis (Hill), see it for what it is – they just don’t care.

For all the eye-rolling moments, I have to admit the climactic scene perfectly sums up this moment of callous Trumpian indifference and excess. There is a truth to Moondog that makes the movie more sad than funny, and Korine gleefully rubs our faces in it.

“You know what I like most about being rich?” Moondog asks Lewis with a cackle. “You can be horrible to people, and they just have to take it.”

The Beach Bum is pure nihilism masquerading as a comedy. It’s an apt allegory for Trump: a seeming outsider rejects social convention, but is really just reinforcing systems of power under the guise of rebellion. Nothing Moondog does is subversive – he is the ultimate rich dick.


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