The Beach Bum review – Matthew McConaughey lands the role of a lifetime
In Harmony Korine’s wild, witty yet tender new film, the often miscast actor scales new heights as a pot-smoking poet
Harmony Korine has built a reputation by throwing audiences full-bodied into worlds of taboo, pleasure and depravity. Whether it’s the recklessness of the jaded New York teens in Kids, or the neon-colored rampage of bikini-clad co-eds in Spring Breakers, Korine dares audiences to revel and empathize with characters who risk being written off as cartoons or cautionary tales. In The Beach Bum, the writer-director turns his observational eye and provocateur verve to a Miami community of misfits, who chase bliss in sex, drugs and misadventures. The result is a film that is joyous, outrageous and slyly mournful.
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Matthew McConaughey stars as Moondog, a once successful poet who has fallen out of the spotlight, coddling himself in clouds of pot smoke, rivers of booze, and the forgiving cushion of his rich wife’s fortune. At a glance, you’d never know Moondog isn’t a vagrant. His long, scraggly blond hair frames a face perpetually cracked open in a mad guffaw, exposing a broad smile and a dead tooth. His conversation swings from the peculiar to the prophetic and profound. One moment he’s cooing over a kitten, proclaiming it “angel pussy”. The next, he’s having sex with a busty stranger in a burger joint’s kitchen, calling out to the diners who look on in mild bemusement. Moondog is a free spirit whose wealth insulates him from many of life’s troubles. That is, until it’s gone.
In the blink of an eye, he goes from eccentric millionaire to homeless weirdo. Faced with financial ruin, Moondog must clean up his act and complete his dormant novel. In doing so, he will hang with a slew of colorful characters: a pyromaniac/“prayer warrior” (Zac Efron), a dolphin-obsessed sea captain (Martin Lawrence), a suave marijuana-connoisseur (Snoop Dogg, not playing himself), and a world-famous singer who has made a career off beach bum appeal (Jimmy Buffett, playing himself). Moondog’s is a world rich in color, splashed with vibrant beachwear, vivid sunsets and the bright lights of Miami. Its vibe is so warm and inviting, you can practically feel the sunshine on your skin and smell the weed in the air. For the first act, Korine is happy to just follow Moondog as he follows his bliss, giving impromptu poetry readings, cackling with friends, or turning up to his daughter’s wedding dressed in a flame-print swim-trunk-and-blazer combo that looks like it came straight from a Guy Fieri fashion line. But there’s a creeping melancholy beneath Moondog’s giggles.
Throughout The Beach Bum, there are moments that puncture its revelry: an unexpected death, the mention of a crippling war wound, the fear of being forgotten or alone. With each, Moondog swirls, dances, rhapsodizes or seduces, not blithely or obliviously. A tender tear rolling down his face gives us a window into how his happiness is a choice. Moondog might seem a clown or a mad fool. But he’s a savage sage who sees the world for what it is, a place capable of great pain and great pleasure. And he chooses the latter. Again and again, whatever the cost.
As Moondog, McConaughey seems to revel in aping his public persona. He struts around in banana hammocks, playing bongos nearly in the buff, smoking up, getting off and getting by. Moondog “just keeps living” – McConaughey’s personal motto. But in quiet closeups, McConaughey reveals the emotional labor behind this choice. We see Moondog take in a situation, a flirtation, a farewell and see him process the pain of it. Then he slides into something sweeter – a pool, a puff, a holiday, or a hook-up. While he laughs and dances and makes his mirth contagious, the ache sinks beneath the surface. Moondog becomes a metaphor for the human condition, where we are painfully aware of the horrors of life and our own mortality, yet persevere to find joy anyway. In that way, The Beach Bum is glorious inspiration. But more than that it is a spirited sermon.
Moondog is a high priest of the power of pleasure. His mass is one of house parties, fireworks and visceral poetry. His parishioners are wannabe pirates, party people, a coke-addicted parrot and victims of fate. His hymn is a jam session between Snoop and Buffett (the former of whom proves to be a surprisingly natural actor, the latter smoothly leaning into his brand). And his God is bliss, elusive and glorious. To seek it out, Moondog preaches with raised hands and a captivating cackle. And seek out The Beach Bum.
The Beach Bum is showing at SXSW and will be released on 29 March
‘The Beach Bum’ Review: Harmony Korine and Matthew McConaughey Team Up For an Alluring But Aimless Journey
Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum is an ode the enchantingly uninhibited. A Florida stoner folk legend about chasing life’s ever-euphoric bliss at all costs, torn straight from the pages Jimmy Buffett’s secret diary. As Korine remarked during the film’s SXSW introduction, his latest lime-garnished cinematic cocktail is formulated as a direct response to negative forces that’ve defined mainstream culture over recent years. Mission accomplished – for damn sure – but there’s a stark irresponsibility to the message put forth by Korine’s titular karmic renegade. This wasted-away Margaritaville vagrant who strolls through life, tall-boy in hand, and has everything worked out.
Viewed purely as a device to distract from negative vibes, you couldn’t shoot a more vividly beautified 90-minute substance bender – as aimless as it is gorgeously cinematic. A warning, description, and guiding tagline that shouldn’t surprise fans of Korine.
Matthew McConaughey stars as greasy-haired rambling “stoned guy at the party,” aptly dubbed Moondog (“Well Hung” painted on his junkyard barge). His life is one of pleasure, especially when dancing through lover’s rhythms with his enviously wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher). He’s a poet by trade, happiness seeker by choice, and weed aficionado thanks to kingpin best friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). From start to finish, The Beach Bum is about Moondog’s pursuit of his American dream and the completion of a long-teased poetry collection – with enough marijuana smoke worth an audience contact high.
Korine’s orchestration of wayward sunburnt bar-hopping is not without trippy-as-sin highs that mirror Moondog’s situational elation. Zac Efron’s portrayal of a preacher’s son – self-dubbed “Tiger” – who befriends Moondog during a brief rehab stint leaves no stone unturned as Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets To Paradise” defines their relationship. Martin Lawrence appears as Captain Wack, a dolphin enthusiast whose sightseeing boat tours have only killed four(ish) people so far – rather astonishing considering his poor judgment. Snoop? A revelation as Lingerie, Jimmy Buffett, and Moondog freestyle a Moondog-themed musical tale while sailing the seas on a tech mogul’s dream yacht (complete with topless female companions and heat-packing security). Moondog’s party never ends, and the guests who join him only add more insanity (and bonded crotch grabbing in Jonah Hill’s case).
Benoît Debie’s cinematography takes Floridian locales from Key West to Miami and color saturates with the most divine neon hues. No matter Moondog’s meandering nature – holed up in another dive, swimming while holding a joint above water, blasting fireworks during a nighttime celebration – The Beach Bum is a travel and tourism bureau’s picturesque daydream. Poolside lazy days and beachfront properties glisten under the sparkling warmth of southern shines, deep aqua blues and flashy garment accessories popping like rainbow starbursts scene by scene. Say what you want about Moondog’s careless journey, but The Beach Bum is astonishingly alluring.
Moondog sings a siren’s song of listless wandering, given how the unashamedly upbeat poet’s “live or let die” attitude never wavers in its liquor-sippin’ glory. When interviewed, asked what makes Moondog different, McConaughey’s modern bard remarks that life is hard enough as is. “Fun is the gun,” and those who embrace uncontested enjoyment nurture glowing auric souls. This rhetoric, again, coming from the privileged caucasian man who’s tied to Minnie’s estate (conflict challenges this golden parachute, of course)? It’s a tempting notion, and not wrong – lord knows we all need a little Moondog in our lives nowadays – but there’s something odd about watching schemes and general dumbfuckery continue to pay off for this hobo caricature.
Korine targets social constructs of 9-5 mundanity and “dependability.” A long-running gag continually knocks Joshua Ritter’s “dependable” husband to Moondog’s daughter (played by Stefania LaVie Owen). “You’ll never be brilliant like my father,” she says in a matter of words to her newlywedded partner. Moondog’s constant ragging on those who buy into corporate rigors and scripted everyday safety is, again, something that makes one think about “saying hello to the sun” now and again, but it’s also oddly framed given Moondog’s circumstances? No blowback, no consequences, and a poster manchild for stumbling upwards through life – to a satirical degree – anchored by advantages abound. Moondog’s shenanigans are epic, although repetitive and shanty whimsical for only so long.
It should come as no shock to note how McConaughey’s acoustic-scored tour through tropical fantasy worlds is a sight to behold – howling at the sky, adapting sex stories with Minnie into objectively touching art, and getting away with everything but murder. A blunt in one hand, pounding away at an old-fashioned typewriter with a single left-handed finger punching key by key. No one wears a captain’s hat better, no one loses themselves to the primality of hippie spirit Gods as transcendently, and no one summons civil abandon like this moonshot maniac who doesn’t see clothes defined by gender. FYI, y’all are gettin’ a heapin’ helping of bronzed McConaughey thong cheeks.
The Beach Bum is a pier dweller’s story of riches to rags to riches with zero stakes. Harmony Korine terrorizes social classes and challenges audiences to find their inner zen beach, yet runs thin on magic despite Matthew McConaughey’s charismatic jester performance. Self-fulfilled cleansing thrives in anecdotal humor, but when credits hit – leaving Moondog exactly where we’ve met him – it’s hard to feel like we’ve experienced anything more than a taste of unrealistic “bliss” (money doesn’t buy happiness). Not all films are meant to be deeply analyzed, but it’s hard to escape finding overall meaning, which will certainly not work for all audiences. The Beach Bum tries for better and worse, but doesn’t quite succeed.