I best appreciate Harmony Korine when he reins in his aimless, nonsensical character studies with the semblance of a guiding structure. Deliberately off-putting, nihilistically empty provocations like Trash Humpers & Mister Lonely are immediately fascinating for their surface eccentricities but exhausting at full-length. By contrast, the reason Gummo & Spring Breakers stand out as clear highlights in the director’s scummy arthouse catalog is that they afford the audience a recognizable genre framework with built-in dramatic payoffs, whether post-Apocalyptic sci-fi or a neon-lit heist thriller, without sacrificing the eccentricities that distinguish Korine as a phlegmy creative voice. The Beach Bum joins those ranks of Korine’s best-behaved works by meeting the audience hallway with a recognizable tone & structure while its minute to minute rhythms still recall the off-putting, amoral deviance of provocations like Trash Humpers. The guiding structure in this sunshiny Floridian nightmare is the most unlikely genre the director has barnacled his schtick to yet: the 1990s major studio comedy. The Beach Bum is essentially Harmony Korine’s Billy Madison. I mean that as a compliment.
Matthew McConaughey stars as the titular preposterous beach bum, a Florida-famous stoner-poet named Moondog. As you might expect from a Korine protagonist, Moondog is The Worst. “The most prolific poet in Key West, Florida,” he lives in a haze of cheap beer, pot smoke, and dehydrating sunshine, relying on his local fame to pave over his schoolyard bully brutality. He ruins every life he touches, but everyone around him continually excuses his behavior with shrugged-off phrases like “That’s just Moondog,” and “He’s from another dimension.” Meanwhile, Moondog laughs maniacally at his own villainy, barking “I write poetry, you little bitch” at anyone who doesn’t immediately respect his literary pedigree. He announces in a poem, “One day I will swallow up the world and when I do I hope you all suffer violently” to his adoring audience, briefly dropping his worry-free beach-frat exterior to reveal his true nature: a hedonist monster who’s wiling to destroy lives if it means he can get laid, get high, and have a laugh. The film builds itself around exploring the intricacies & eccentricities of a character who is too stoned & too spiritually empty to be genuinely interesting on his own merits. It’s pure Korine in that way, even if its surface details resemble a much more conventional comedy.
As off-putting & nihilistically empty as The Beach Bum is as a character study, the marketing company that cut its misleading trailer had plenty to work with in making it look like a 90s stoner comedy. A plot contrivance that pressures Moondog to finish his next poetry collection in order to inherit a fortune that was willed to him with that stipulation feels like it was ripped directly from an unpublished Adam Sandler screenplay. To reinforce that association, Jonah Hill plays Moondog’s literary agent as a full-on impersonation of The Waterboy’s Bobby Boucher. Moondog’s own persona seems to have derived from a fantasy where Billy Madison grew up to be an even grosser, less effective version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, which is the kind of fan-fiction you write as a teenage idiot only to rediscover it in horror as a sober adult. All the plot really amounts to, though, is an excuse to send Moondog on a go-nowhere, circular road trip with his trusty typewriter slung over his shoulder in a trash bag. Like all road-trip comedies, The Beach Bum is mostly a series of episodic run-ins with over-the-top caricatures: Snoop Dogg & Jimmy Buffett essentially playing themselves in extended cameos; Martin Lawrence as a dolphin-obsessed sea captain (who would almost certainly have been played by Chris Farley in a genuine comedy of this ilk); Zac Efron as a JNCOs-wearing Christian-rocker who apparently time traveled directly from a late-90s Creed concert. They’re all recognizable archetypes from mainstream 90s comedies but distorted into horrific grotesqueries. And none are half as nightmarish as Moondog himself.
The Beach Bum bills itself as “The new Comedy from Harmony Korine,” but I was the only person at my first-weekend 4:20 screening howling in laughter or gasping in horror. A certain familiarity with the director’s schtick is likely required at the door to get on this film’s wavelength. It wears the clothes of a laugh-a-minute yuck ‘em up from the Happy Madison brand, but beneath those vestments it’s the same aimless, puke-stained nightmare Korine has always delivered. As a hot-and-cold admirer of his work, I found plenty to be impressed by here – particularly in the way he mimics Moondog’s semi-conscious, lifelong-blackout engagement with the world in an editing style that works in half-remembered, repetitious circles. Moondog is a destructive menace with nothing novel or insightful to say about the world but somehow continually gets away with passing off his villainy as gonzo poetry. Living inside his burnout, bottom-feeder mind for 95 minutes is a frustrating, fruitless experience, but also fascinating as a character-specific nightmare. It’s less a satirical attack on the juvenile manbabies of mainstream comedies past than it is an acknowledgment of a kindred spirit between them and Korine’s own catalog of useless, preposterous lunatics. Whatever critiques or subversions of the mainstream comedy you may pick up along the way are just a result of the director doing his usual thing to an unusual level of success.