The Beach Bum (2019)

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.

-Brandon Ledet.

Driving While Black (2015)

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fourstar

“As a black man, I have to deal with an extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life.”

The same year the aggressively crass (and surprisingly touching) Tangerine took America on a whirlwind tour through the seedy side of Los Angeles populated by trans sex workers & drug-addled pimps, Driving While Black offers a different perspective of the city rarely seen in cinema: that of the young, black stoner. With its tape warp hiphop/Stones Throw Records-leaning soundtrack (complete with a Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf ringtone) & graffiti-flavor title cards, Driving While Black poses itself on the surface as a laid-back stoner comedy, but packs a much heftier political punch than what you’d typically expect from that genre. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny. Unlike the way Dear White People softens its political provocation by focusing on the emotional stress of its college student protagonists, Driving While Black never strays from its musings about police brutality & abuse of power, but still somehow mixes that message with goofball gags like the image of its protagonist getting so high that he glides down the street like Dracula. It’s an impressive & often powerful balance in comedic tone.

Here’s the plot of Driving While Black in an over-simplified nutshell: Dimitri, an aspiring artist/overgrown pizza deliver boy, is trying to make it to a job interview at the behest of his girlfriend & mother to better himself, but on his way he is constantly derailed by a historically race-obsessed police force, the LAPD. There’s a depressing sense of routine & ritual in his run-ins with the law, which prompts him to mutter things like “Here we go again with the bullshit” whenever he’s pulled over. With direct references to milestones like the Rodney King riots & our current era of online activism in reaction to police murders of unarmed black youth, the film has a keen sense of history & knowing, hands-on experience with police abuse of power in L.A.’s black community. Establishing that it’s a cradle-to-grave problem, cops are even shown harassing children, calling them “little assholes” & “cum socks” (and then humorously over-explaining the meaning of that latter insult), and accusing them of crimes they obviously didn’t commit. In some encounters, cops lecture the protagonist on how to not look suspicious (because dressing or acting a certain way is likely to get you pulled over). In others, they overstep their authority with statements like “You’re not under arrest, but I am going to handcuff you for your safety and for mine”. There are some surreal scenes, like depictions of Ku Klux Kops (who wear a sort of police uniform, hooded robe hybrid) with glowing eyes & demonic voices, as well as just-as-surreal encounters where cops are surprisingly helpful. There are also some more believable moments where they’re portrayed as real people, however nerdy or unnecessarily aggressive. What really stands out, though, is the fact that Dimitri has to deal with police on (at least) a daily basis, completely against his will, a point hammered home by the fact that the LAPD uses his pizza place as a social meeting ground.

Speaking of Dimitri, actor Dominique Purdy should be given a lot of credit for making sure that the movie never tips too far into a didactic, political downer. He’s just a generally affable, funny guy, something that the movie is smart to exploit. Watching him go about his day, interacting with L.A. weirdos, drug dealers, street performers, and Homes to the Stars tour groups, are some of the film’s most enjoyable moments, which invites the audience to share in his frustration when his day is sidelined by police-related complications. The film is also smart to directly reference Dave Chappelle multiple times, as the comparison to his likeness & stoner-minded sense of political humor is likely to come up time & time again anyway. Since Purdy collaborated with director Paul Sapiano as a writing partner on the film’s script, he has a personal connection with the material that more or less allows him to be his effortlessly funny/charming self. It’s tempting to infer that Driving While Black is a glimpse of his Purdy’s personal Los Angeles, an affable stoner’s guide through the relentless annoyance & potential danger of a racist institution that complicates & threatens his otherwise pleasant, laid-back lifestyle. And because it’s a problem with no clear answer, the film ends that tour on a chillingly ambiguous note, a brave choice in conclusion for a screwball stoner comedy, however political. It’s a rare treat that a movie can be this consistently funny & still leave you with such a provocative feeling once the credits roll. I’m excited to see the rest of the world’s reaction as Driving While Black‘s distribution starts to gain traction. There’s surely to be a good bit of great post-screening lobby talk in the coming year as more people get to experience this gem.

-Brandon Ledet

Grandma’s Boy (2006)

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threehalfstar

(Unrated edition, viewed 9/8/2015)

Starts slow, but delivers consistent lowbrow humor. Predictable, but a solid entry for its genre.

Allen Covert puts in a dopey but lovable performance as Alex, a middle aged video game tester who moves in with his titular Grandma after losing his apartment. He finds himself learning to navigate life with his new elderly roommates (wonderfully fun performances by Doris Roberts, Shirley Jones, and Shirley Knight), the challenges of working with a company of gamers, and his affection for the new project manager, played by Linda Cardellini. Throw in a few gross-out gags, a hefty dose of stoner humor and a cameo by Rob Schneider, and you’ve got the regular Adam Sandler formula.

Grandma’s Boy works pretty well. Interestingly enough, it manages to pull off a convincing bait-and-switch with the main character, Alex. Alex begins the film as a schlubby loser, difficult to like and not easy to root for. By the end of the movie, he’s a goofy, kind protagonist who works hard to keep his Grandma happy, develop his own video game, and win the girl. There isn’t a single other twist in the entire movie, and that’s ok.

I recommend this movie to viewers looking for a stoner flick that’s engaging, if lowbrow, without being thought-provoking. Not a bad pizza night or sick day movie.

-Erin Kinchen

American Ultra (2015)

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fourstar

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It’s not exactly accurate to say that the bloody stoner action comedy American Ultra is completely without precedent. It’s at the very least possible to see echoes of the film telegraphed in properties as wide in range as Pineapple Express, Hot Fuzz, Hitman, Spy, Clerks, MacGruber, and the Borne franchise. What we have here instead of a wildly idiosyncratic picture without predecessor is the distinct sense that director Nima Nourizadeh & writer Max Landis have a deep love & appreciation for movies, especially for the violent action comedy as a genre. American Ultra currently isn’t doing so hot in terms of ticket sales or critical reception, but it has the makings of a future cult classic (like a Near Dark or a John Dies at the End) written all over it, because that love for irreverent action cinema shines through so brightly. Although Landis has been recently been making an ass of himself on Twitter complaining about the lack of immediate returns on a screenplay he’s obviously proud of, he can at least take solace in the fact that future blood-thirsty stoners will be greedily streaming his film on loop as they reach for the nearest bong & nod off in their respective piles of empty two liter bottles & Cheetos.

Plotted over just three event-filled days, American Ultra follows the panic attack stricken stoner/amateur cartoonist Mike Howell as he transforms from a pathetic loser to an inhumanly capable killing machine assassin. Played by Jesse Eisenberg with the exact neurotic fragility you’d expect from a performance from Jesse Eisenberg, Mike is a pitiable weakling who relies on the emotional strength of his partner-in-crime stoner girlfriend Phoebe Larson (played by Kristen Stewart, of whom I’m becoming a not-so-secret dedicated fan) for any & all basic life functions. What Mike doesn’t know is that his frailty is actually a safeguard invented by the government to protect his well-being (and potential danger to others) as a discarded “asset” (read: killing machine assassin). Once Mike is re-activated by a well-meaning CIA agent gone rogue he finds himself capable of killing even the most menacing of threats (including other “assets”) with items as ordinary as dust pans, cookware, extension chords, and spoons, when he was just minutes ago not capable of doing much more than rolling joints & tending a corner store cash register.

What’s so unique about American Ultra is its ability to avoid the more pedestrian lines of thought you’d expect from that kind of plot. For instance, Phoebe is much, much more than the girlfriend accessory you’d expect from a male-helmed action film. Her role is constantly active & vital to the surprisingly layered plot, making for a deeply engaging love story once the full details of her relationship with Mike is revealed. Besides Phoebe’s active role & the satisfying romance narrative, the film also surprises in its distinct style of comedy. Although there’s no shortage of glib jokes on hand, most of the successful humor is anchored in its over-the-top violence. American Ultra is shockingly violent, completely giddy in its comic blood lust. It’s likely that audiences’ mileage may vary depending on the viewer’s love of action movie gore, but I personally had a really fun time with the film’s outrageous brutality.

The movie’s standard action movie palette of G-men, satellite surveillance, and drone strikes may not scream the height of creativity, but there’s plenty to play with between the lines to make it a unique property (besides propensity for violence & an active female lead). American Ultra‘s very specific world of CGI pot smoke, black light dungeons, illegal fireworks, bruised & beaten leads (despite action films’ tendency to show their battered heroes with only the lightest of scratches), and refreshing ability to shoot extended sequences in grocery stores without succumbing to grotesque product placement all pose it as the kind of distinctive property destined to gain a cult audience likely to overshadow the narrative of its lackluster theater run. Max Landis might be squirming (or, more accurately, throwing a temper tantrum) over what’s currently perceived as a commercial (and critically middling) failure, but I believe a little patience will eventually lead to American Ultra finding its proper (drug-addled, gore-loving) audience, who are perhaps currently a little too intoxicated to make the trek to the cinema.

-Brandon Ledet