What’s tan, giggles, and guzzles beer by the case? Moondog, of course! Who or what exactly is a “Moondog?” Well he’s just here from another dimension, passing through. In director Harmony Korine’s latest Florida-set cinematic odyssey The Beach Bum, Matthew McConaughey stars as our titular bum. And we the audience are sort of just meant to go with it.
The Beach Bum
Director: Harmony Korine
Release Date: March 29, 2019
You could make the easy jump from McConaughey’s Moondog to Jeff Bridges’ legendary layabout The Dude of The Big Lebowski fame, though you might say the Dude mellows you out in a haze of smoke, while Moondog runs you down an alley with cans of Red Bull and beer. From the start we’re treated to snippets of life in a typical day of Moondog: Drink, mingle with Key West, Florida natives as a local celebrity, then return to your Miami mansion where your millionaire wife (Isla Fisher) and her hip-hop lover Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) party and smoke. Jimmy Buffet was there too. Did I mention Moondog’s a poet?
The Beach Bum sets you up with a lot, but also, in the same way, not much. Moondog lazes about his days, including his daughter’s wedding, drinking and spouting crude yet, to the ears of those listening, profound poetry. Until reality snaps its fingers. The Beach Bum hits a number of “darker,” more-focused story beats, but never quite allows itself to become too preoccupied with its supporting cast and subplots. Moondog is no stranger to stumbling and fumbling, but he never stalls. This could be to your detriment, wary reader, or your utter delight.
The way Lassie just needed to be a hero and The Dude just wanted his rug back, Matthew McConaughey as Moondog… just goes for it. The choppy, episodic quality of watching him tap away at his typewriter, smoke massive blunts, and bum his way across the magic hour lights of the Florida piers almost makes you wonder if this was just a weekend with Matthew McConaughey in real life. The aforementioned subplots veer from the fringes of profundity to the insanity of an Adult Swim short skit; a spree of petty crime with a wild young rehab inmate (Zac Effron) had me wondering if Korine was returning to his Spring Breakers thematic stomping ground. (For more on Spring Breakers, check out our Deep Analysis of Korine’s previous film!) Yet for the moments of tonal whiplash The Beach Bum truly remains episodic, baggage from Moondog’s shenanigans never really following him or morphing into a single message for the audience.
So without a real concrete story to hook you, and hopefully you’re attending your screening in a clear state of mind, what’s to keep your bum watching the bum? Pretty colors, man. The flipside of oppressive-spooky-neon is The Beach Bum‘s pastel palette and colorful costumes. Some of the sunrises and settings caught by cinematographer Benoît Debie are truly spectacular, though never dwelled on as epic or awe-inspiring. To dwell is not Moondog’s style, after all. His style is… eclectic, with a wardrobe running the gamut of Hawaiian shirts and coastal staples to neon thongs and women’s clothing. McConaughey goes method. The soundtrack too is well-curated, not only for its music but the actual design of the film, with absurd, comic sound effects cracking in for fun and fourth wall-breaking.
At this point it might still sound like The Beach Bum is all about watching Matthew McConaughey drink, sex, and smoke his way across Florida, and you’re not entirely wrong. Harmony Korine is an acquired taste, though whereas in the past his cinematic cocktails often had a real sour twist to them, The Beach Bum has a sweet underbelly to its existence. It’s ridiculous. It’s crude. It’s a bit like watching Jackass if it were taking little jabs at celebrity culture. Jonah Hill pops up as Moondog’s agent (he’s absolutely insane, affecting a Southern drawl and a madcap getup) and late in the film mentions his favorite thing about being rich is that he can “just be horrible to people and they just have to take it.” Too blunt to be taken as serious social commentary perhaps, but there’s a nut that Korine is trying to crack. Just this time he’s using a teaspoon, if before with Spring Breakers he was using automatic weapons.
Did I like The Beach Bum? I haven’t laughed at a new film this much in quite awhile. I admire its color palette and style as well as its commitment to not givin‘ a hoot. Is it grand cinema? Probably not. Who cares? The real matter is whether you’ll like it, which depends on how you feel about cans of beer, margaritas, and Matthew McConaughey’s high-pitched cackling for ninety-five minutes. To quote Lingerie (yeah, that’s Snoop Dogg’s character’s name), “Be good or be good at it.” If The Beach Bum isn’t good, it’s at least got to be good at it, whatever “it” may be.