DIRECTED BY: Harmony Korine
FEATURING: Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dog, Ilsa Fisher
PLOT: Moondog is a hard-partying hippie celebrity poet living off his past glory and heiress wife’s fortune; when she dies, her will specifies he can’t inherit her millions unless he finishes his long-gestating novel.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fortunately it’s not weird enough to have to worry about its merits as a film. It’s almost a normal stoner comedy—by Harmony Korine directing Matthew McConaughey standards, at least.
COMMENTS: Matthew McConaughey goes hog wild playing a fantasy version of himself as a perpetually high, holy fool beach bum in Hawaiian shirts and flip-up sunglasses. Topless women love him, for undisclosed reasons. Stray kittens love him, because they don’t know any better. Jimmy Buffet loves him enough to invite him to steal his spotlight. Rich heiresses gladly bankroll his middle-aged slacker lifestyle. Snoop Dogg loves him enough to share his secret stash of Jamaican Christmas Tree dank. Thin Jonah Hill, the Cajun literary agent, loves him, even though he hasn’t made a dime off him in decades. Moondog, the celebrity poet (!) can do no wrong, even when he finally shows up, drunk and high, for his daughter’s wedding in the middle of her vows, then grabs the mike (and the groom’s junk).
In fact, just about the only person in the movie who doesn’t love Moondog is the judge who sentences him to rehab (though even she is a fan of his older stuff). Fortunately, vape bro Zac Efron loves him enough to help him bust out of the group home. And Martin Lawrence loves him enough to take him on as an apprentice dolphin guide and let him feed his pet parrots cocaine and… well, you get the gist. The Beach Bum proclaims Moondog’s stupendousness for 90 minutes.
But although everyone in the movie loves Moondog, it’s hard for anyone in the audience to like Moondog. The script insists he’s a genius, but he seems like the kind of guy you quit inviting out a couple years after graduation because he still acts like he’s at a Saturday night kegger all the time. He’s Hunter S. Thompson, but without the fear or the loathing. Most of the time, when he recites poetry, he’s actually ripping off D.H. Lawrence or Baudelaire, and when he’s not, he’s writing odes to his own penis. Moondog would probably tell you that he doesn’t have to actually write poetry because he lives poetry, which for him means using a gas mask as a bong while riding a bicycle in a thong, or blowing up his own yacht with fireworks—you know, the kind of poetry frat boys would live, if only an heiress would bankroll them.
Now, it might be that the movie is shot through Moondog’s subjective lens, and everyone doesn’t really think he’s unbelievably awesome. (Radical subjectivity might explain some of the more hallucinatory incidents, like the blind airplane pilot who puffs on an oversized spliff that would choke Cheech and Chong.) A vintage video shows Moondog on a wharf, reading lame stream-of-consciousness verses while almost spilling his gin and tonic, looking like a bad motivational speaker in a rainbow sports coat. Present day Moondog is incredibly impressed by his older self’s performance, unlike the half-full, bored contemporaneous audience in fold-out chairs. This flashback could suggest that his poetic appeal is a product of his own imagination. Except that the evidence of the rest of the movie—including his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize—refutes this interpretation. Of course, consistency is not Moondog’s bag—it’s for squares, baby.
I came close to awarding The Beach Bum a “Beware” rating. In the end, however, McConnaughey’s gonzo performance, and the picture’s cinematography and other technical aspects, make it too good for the lowest rating, while the Beach Bum‘s lack of any sort of seriousness or purpose means it’s not really worth the effort of hating. It seems that the rest of the world sees something in Harmony Korine’s work I’m obviously not getting. If the Beach Bum‘s joke is supposed to be that Moondog is an insufferable, talentless, self-mythologizing jackass coasting on decades-old success, but everyone around him treats him like he’s a genius… that’s got to hit close to home for an auteur with Korine’s ego. I’d be impressed if Korine had the self-deprecating self-awareness to make Moondog an autobiographical stand-in. But even if he did, that still wouldn’t make The Beach Bum a good movie.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s all incredibly fun, and hilarious, and weird, but with surprisingly earnest feelings of tenderness towards its subjects.”–Emma Stefansky, Thrillist (contemporaneous)