There’s at least one scene in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, or at least one moment anyway, that makes good on the film’s tacit promise of decadent punk art surrealism. Matthew McConaughey’s stoned out, sunburnt poet-urchin of the Florida Keys, “Moondog,” walks by a guy playing the tuba on a pier for some reason, and gleefully knocks the guy into the water. The tuba’s brassy honks become a surprised queefing for a split second before the big splash punchline. It’s wonderful.
If only the rest of the movie could’ve achieved that level of nonsensical perfection. Korine rails against the traditional narrative structure, with Beach Bum more a series of extravagant whims than a movie, and maybe you’ll see “art” in that, but it’s interesting how much Korine’s whims seem to resemble comedic vehicles for rappers from the early aughts, or plot outlines from Adam Sandler movies. Giant joints, Rastafarians, public sex, constant nudity, and a series of weird cameos by kitschy celebrities (Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Buffett, Martin Lawrence) — it feels like Korine’s influences for The Beach Bum were How High and Who’s Your Caddy, realized and laundered through Korine’s outsider artist cred. The obvious take is that Korine’s not so different from McConaughey’s Moondog, supposedly a famous poet who uses his position to screw waitresses, drink Pabst, and generally make a mockery of polite society.
Moondog is The Dude, without all the… you know… movie around him. Beach Bum is reasonably fun, more so if you imagine that there were some squares out there who really didn’t want Harmony Korine to make this movie, but his dick-centric stoner riffs do fairly quickly become a bit of a drone.
Watching it, I was reminded of a kid in my video productions class in high school. He spent the entire year working on this massive project, which consisted solely of graphic violence from other movies all edited together, with no apparent narrative arc or commentary. It was just stuff he liked, cut together, and the stuff he liked was all fairly similar. He worked on it the entire year, and no one really knew what to make of it other than that doing it seemed to bring the kid joy. There was some vicarious enjoyment to be had in that, but mostly confusion. And you could tell our teacher didn’t know whether to encourage the kid, who was clearly so passionate about something no one else really understood, or to alert the authorities.
Harmony Korine very much feels like that kid, and The Beach Bum puts us in the teacher’s role. Is there some cosmic connection between Matthew McConaughey as a beach grifter, Isla Fisher as a rich mom always in lingerie and bikinis, Snoop Dogg as… well, Snoop Dogg, Martin Lawrence as an incompetent dolphin tour guide, Zac Efron as a nihilist Christian rocker who looks like he got attacked with a panini press, and Jimmy Buffet? How hard should we try to find it?
Mostly it made me wish the feature film format wasn’t so narrowly defined. Does a movie really need to promise 90-minutes-plus of content to be theatrically viable? It feels arbitrary, like a vestigial artifact of an older time, and it most hurts movies like The Beach Bum, which would’ve been a wondrous fever dream at 30 or so minutes, but feels like an eternity at 95.