Director Harmony Korine has done some striking work featuring unusual characters and their individualist points of view. “Gummo” (1997) focused on residents of Xenia, Ohio and the effects of a recent tornado. “Julien Donkey-Boy” (1999) was a portrait of a schizophrenic which featured Werner Herzog as Julien’s father.
Now it’s 2019 and Korine’s latest is “The Beach Bum” starring Matthew McConaughey as a down and out poet.
It is a decidedly sour affair.
As surprising as it may seem, the normally iconoclastic director dives in shallow waters, depicting McConaughey as a loudly dressed, hedonist hippie who cackles, wobbles and weaves slugging down dented cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Moondog, as he is called, island hops from Key West to Miami and back again, barking and yelling. Once every so often he pecks at a typewriter that looks like a toy. But for most of the film, he smokes and drinks with his legs spread, his groin in full view.
These spare gestures are all that Moondog has up his hirsute sleeve. Isla Fisher is Moondog’s materialist wife. Snoop Dogg is Moondog’s drug dealer friend. Martin Lawrence plays a tour guide who mistakes a group of sharks for dolphins with gory results.
Jimmy Buffett has a cameo as another Moondog apostle and he has a few lines laced with profanity that feels fake and unrealistic.
Moondog wobbles sputters and chokes, reciting a past poem about his penis with action that is trite and uninteresting, like Cheech & Chong only worse.
At one point, Moondog knocks an older man over in his electric chair and robs him. This might have had some social commentary like Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” but it doesn’t. It comes off as hollow.
It is understandable that Moondog is a man of happenstance who lives by moment to moment, without judgment. But as a film, this concept does not go anywhere compelling, intriguing or adventuresome.
Through Moondog’s agent (Jonah Hill) we are expected to believe that Moondog’s new novel is up for a Pulitzer Prize but everything in the film is unfunny, unbelievable and unreal without much import or commentary.
The Key West scenes briefly feature Schooner Wharf and Sloppy Joe’s along with Higgs Beach and the pier, but it is interspersed so frequently with Miami that it all feels like Disney with sparse color and quirk.
There is one singular scene of merit in which a boat explodes. Instead of being horrified by the accident, a group of teenagers scream in delight and caress the scorched cash. This one scene illustrates our current cultural condition. Harmony Korine is frequently unusual in his other work, but he has taken the easy way out here.
If one wants to see Matthew McConaughey sway back and forth, swilling beer while engaging in cunnilingus and shouting at the sun, that is a personal choice, but this film is a cartoon through and through. The biggest disappointment of “The Beach Bum” is not that it is a cartoon, only that it is a bad one. Key West deserves better and so does Harmony Korine.
Write Ian at email@example.com