The Beach Bum


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Beach Bum
"Hollywood is full of tales of people like Moondog who discover the true meaning of life when they get sober. Korine isn't that naive."

If you have (or had) any kind of fun in your youth, you'll know the type. That guy who turns up at parties seemingly at random, who knows everybody and makes new friends easily, who gets away with pushing sexual boundaries because he seems so harmless and fluffy, who dresses gaudily and is generous with his drugs and never, ever seems to be sober. He guarantees an entertaining evening so you're always happy to see him - until he's been sleeping on your couch for three weeks and inviting strangers to your house and you just cannot get him to leave.

As Moondog, Matthew McConaughey embodies that guy. You might think that you're safe when he's restricted to the screen, but this is a Harmony Korine film and there are plenty of traps you can stumble into anyway. The Beach Bum is an immersive, brilliantly directed film, but it's not just another happy, airheaded stoner comedy because Korine clearly does know that guy and wants viewers to take responsibility for their vicarious pleasure.

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Moondog is - was - a famous poet. Intermittently we catch sight of him at recitals where he utters a few lines of the kind of egotistical, sexually focused inanity that people who wear neon flannels and still use typewriters think is cutting edge. His wife (isla Fisher) thinks he has a book in him but he's disinclined to do the work to get it out. Instead he spends his time drifting from beach to boat to teenage party along the Florida Keys and only occasionally visits her mansion, which she doesn't seem to mind - he's more of a pet than a traditional husband to her, and she has local performing artist Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) around for sex and friendship anyway. Everybody is rich and the living is easy - but when tragedy strikes this cosy little world, Moondog is challenged to turn his life around and start taking responsibility.

Hollywood is full of tales of people like Moondog who discover the true meaning of life when they get sober. Korine isn't that naive. Moondog has no real intention of going through with it and because he's rich and popular and prepared to do quite horrible things when occasion calls for it, having no real empathy behind that disarming smile, he can get away with behaving pretty much however he likes. And that's pretty much it. Except that where traditional comedies of this kind would have their heroes think up some clever wheeze for the audience to laugh along with, and would never actually show anybody who didn't deserve it getting hurt, Korine shows it how it really is. In a year full of films about class, this is perhaps one of the most subversive. Anybody who is inclined to watch this kind of film at all will root for Moondog, even identify with him, and of course he's a monster, the clueless one percent writ large, casually screwing over everyone around him and getting them to applaud him as he does it.

What's more interesting is how many viewers seem to have missed this aspect of the film, seeing only what they want to see. It may be that, for once, Korine has used too light a touch. Though it has some very dark moments, there are issues with pacing and the overall balance of the film, which sometimes feels padded and overly fluffy. McConaughey inhabits his character with ease but the way he restricts his range to illustrate Moondog's limitations, the artificiality of his charm, may not be apparent to viewers less familiar with his work.

Presented as a series of impressions rather than a straightforward, linear progression of scenes, in keeping with the way that the world seems when one is under the influence, The Beach Bum gives Korine plenty of room to play to his strengths, sometimes presenting events more than once in succession as variations on a theme, exploring the distortions of memory and the ways that we delude ourselves. Douglas Crise's editing complements this approach perfectly. Unfortunately, as with some of the director's other works, there isn't really enough going on here for a full-length feature. The central idea is strong and there are moments of genius, but it never quite makes the impact that it should. When the effects wear off, you'll be left feeling empty.

Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2019
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The Beach Bum packshot
A once successful poet aims to drift through the remainder of his life in a happy haze of drink and drugs.

Director: Harmony Korine

Writer: Harmony Korine

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Stefania LaVie Owen, Martin Lawrence, Zac Efron

Year: 2019

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Switzerland, UK, France, US


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