I like movies that take me to unexpected places, both literally and metaphorically speaking. Unconventional stories and larger-than-life characters are a departure from my day-to-day life. Sometimes it can involve being transported on a trip across time and space, while other times that trip can be walking in another man’s tattered sandals for 90 minutes. Harmony Korine’s latest mind-splosion does just that in a very strange, extremely demanding character study: “The Beach Bum.”
In terms of cinematic characters, Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of Moondog may be one of the most unlikable of the 21st century. A stoner party-boy poet uses his marginal celebrity to get free drinks and bang his way through the sexually liberated women of Key West. His life is a perpetual party, only interrupted when he passes out on some dock, houseboat or cheap motel he currently inhabits.
Moondog’s trippy sun-soaked bliss is temporarily interrupted by his wife, who informs him he must return to mainland Miami to attend the wedding of his daughter, Heather (Stephanie LaVie Owen). We quickly learn Moondog isn’t interested in cleaning up or changing to accommodate anyone else. He is a mop-headed, sunglasses-clad sore thumb, no matter the location or situation. For those who are a part of his indulgent pocket of the world, it could almost be referred to as “charming.”
Moondog’s wife Nellie (Isla Fisher) loves the crusty bastard and is understanding of his unique personality. She’s also something of a free spirt who indulges in her own affairs. Their relationship is an interesting blend of raw passion, friction and frightening codependency. Like everyone else, Nellie indulges Moondog to a fault, which ultimately leads to tragic (or darkly comic) circumstances.
Moondog is trying to finish a novel, something that seems impossible as he ricochets through life like a pinball. He eventually ends up arrested and sentenced to rehab. Will Moondog find meaning in the 12 steps and be able to transition into a vice-free life? Absolutely not—this isn’t that kind of story. Harmony Korine rarely paints with such strokes.
“The Beach Bum” is a strange movie—which is both its greatest strength and what I’m guessing will prompt people to walk out within 30 minutes. The movie is a comedy in the most broad of terms.
There are some ludicrous moments. Korine leans in bluntly to present outlandish behavior in a way that’s simultaneously appalling and amusing. It’s why I imagine there will be many who find “The Beach Bum” an enjoyable larf and others who will hate every single frame. Somehow they will both be right and wrong.
What might infuriate viewers is the abandonment or real-world logic and values expressed by Moondog. He manages to stumble from one success to the next. Every terrible choice bears no consequence and only seems to yield further reward. McConaughey is perfectly cast, and pretty much abandons any concept of restraint to embrace every crazy impulse. It’s a performance both inspired and inevitable; it is McConaughey at 1, clad in the garish outfits that seem eye-popping—even for Florida, our tackiest state.
He’s also surrounded with a number of interesting performers bringing their own personal brand of crazy, including Snoop Dogg, Jonah Hill, Zac Efron and Martin Lawrence. Each bring something dynamic and slightly insane to their characters. For me, “The Beach Bum” was an entertaining journey, even though Moondog doesn’t really end up anywhere. There are no lessons learned or epiphanies discovered by anyone. There’s almost a cartoonish, farcical quality that resonated with me. Korine and McConaughey took me on a weird and wild ride to absolutely nowhere—like a roller-coaster with a fully stocked bar.