‘The Beach Bum’ Film Review: Matthew McConaughey Burns Out in Harmony Korine’s Aimlessly Downbeat Comedy

Party Cinema has never seemed more grimy or less fun

Last Updated: March 28, 2019 @ 3:30 PM

“He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man. He’s brilliant,” says Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), the neglected daughter of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), in “The Beach Bum,” Harmony Korine’s latest exploration of charismatic and hedonistic human disasters. Heather’s father is an acclaimed poet, his artistic genius seemingly on the wane, who lives in South Florida like Hunter S. Thompson if he were a character in Korine’s fractured comedy about middle-American weirdness, “Trash Humpers.”

That Moondog isn’t trying to have sex with garbage cans and mailboxes would seem more a case of it having slipped his drug-addled mind, rather than a distaste for the practice itself. Moondog is also quite rich, much like James Franco’s character in Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” thanks to having married money in the form of the sexually voracious Minnie (Isla Fisher), whose emotional and physical adoration of her ne’er-do-well spouse is fully reciprocated, kind of like a half-naked, alcoholic Morticia and Gomez Addams under a blinding Miami sun.

Moondog takes each day as a new opportunity to get as high as he can and to have sex with as many random women as possible — it’s fine, Minnie is herself engaged in side-shenanigans with their friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg, whose performance is both lovingly horny and somewhat mournful) — in between isolated and increasingly rare moments of committing poetic thoughts to paper on a manual typewriter. Moondog likes to howl and giggle and smash bottles over people’s heads, push strangers off docks into the ocean, and send old ladies in wheelchairs careening into brick walls. In other words, the creative, freewheeling, literary genius banging on the bongos and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon for breakfast is also irredeemably horrible.

When tragedy strikes, Moondog is confronted with the possibility of poverty, rehab, and jail, but living for pleasure means that none of these consequences strike him as especially consequential, so… whatever? Numbed to reality, the poet battles back each new obstacle that threatens to ruin his good time with more performance partying. This constitutes the bulk of the film’s action, becoming its own dazed Sisyphean chore, not only for Moondog but for the viewer as well.

Along for the increasingly horrific good times are Jonah Hill as an agent channeling Foghorn Leghorn, Zac Efron as a renegade rehab escapee with meticulously shaved facial hair, Martin Lawrence as an inept dolphin-tour guide named Captain Wack — who winds up mistaking hungry sharks for his favorite friendly mammals — and a geographically appropriate yet still somewhat inexplicable series of appearances from Jimmy Buffett.

The scuzzier side of human experience has fascinated Korine since his audacious 1997 directorial debut, “Gummo,” and he has never passed judgment on his characters. His films find joy, humor and beauty in marginal existence, and they usually slyly dig into emotional territory where it’s least expected. (His 2007 film “Mister Lonely” featured a moving sequence involving singing, painted eggs, something that needs to be seen to be believed.)

But the world is changing, and though Korine has never ventured into explicitly political filmmaking, the idea of a very rich and resolutely unpleasant person holed up in Florida has taken on a new real-life meaning, so maybe the strain is showing.

McConaughey dives headfirst into the well here, howling all the way, and his committed performance is one to admire even if it’s not one to like. And Korine’s insistence that his anti-hero is fine, or at least still functional as-is, even as the toll his behavior takes on the people surrounding him turns deadly, stops just short of endorsing a life of running roughshod over the people you claim to care about most. When Snoop Dogg, the very high priest of weed, is talking about you as “the death of a dream,” you know something isn’t quite perfect in paradise.

Sonically woozy with laid-back 70s stoner hits, and shot in a pink neon haze with what amounts to a greasy camera lens by cinematographer BenoĆ®t Debie (“Climax,” “Enter The Void”),”The Beach Bum” is all chill mood and creeping melancholy. If the endlessly repetitive scenes of drunken dissolution become annoyingly depressing, that might just be the point. Korine has always been hands-off with his party people, but here he retreats entirely, letting the audience decide if poetic masterpieces have a cost worth paying. He leaves his protagonist to his own devices, and in turn this leaves “The Beach Bum” feeling like a eulogy for its own endless bacchanal.