In The Beach Bum, Matthew McConaughey is the most Matthew McConaughey that McConaughey has ever McConaugheyed.
Armed with scraggled, hay-colored hair; flip-up shades; psychedelic Hawaiian print shirts; and constant PBR tallboys, Moondog (McConaughey) has the outer appearance of a grizzled, careless sea dog. But in reality, Moondog is “the most prolific poet in all of Key West, Florida.” This according to a dive bar musician, who allows Moondog on stage to sing along and then riff an unformed piece of poetry.
Moondog made his riches early, both through his poetry and through his marriage. But he largely ignores the money (until it is suddenly taken away from him). This radical change of events forces him to go back to writing. It is a moment that calls for looking inward and taking stock of one’s life. A moment that your average script would mark as a turning point in its protagonist’s life. In the case of Moondog, though, not much changes.
Writer-director Harmony Korine’s stock in trade is the fringes of society. So of course the mythic fringe of Moondog’s identity is right up Korine’s alley. Moondog is the grimy, freewheeling fringe of Korine’s Alien (James Franco) mixed with the crass, frank masculinity of Bukowski.
Korine is, in his vague and celebratory way, comparing the concept of “bum” with the concept of “genius;” one is often looked down upon, the other often looking down. The creation of Moondog as an ambivalent genius, a bum with crackles of creative brilliance, makes absurd the distinction between “bum” and “genius.” However, there is a level of absurdity when Moondog, to an appreciate award ceremony crowd, recites a poem about his penis in the process of post-coital urination that is too insane to reconcile.
As is often the case with Korine, the intention of The Beach Bum is hard to parse. Ideologically cinema verite, Korine loves to put the camera in an unlikely character’s world and let them explore their own spaces. What results from this is, often, confusion. As The Beach Bum travels episodically through a bacchanal of booze, comically-sized blunts, and lounging naked women on yachts, it becomes hard to watch the privileged protagonist left unchallenged. It also becomes hard to watch through the boredom of repetition.
There is oozy McConaughey charm in this character, making his passage through the more humorous episodes of this meandering plot hazy and bubbly. But McConaughey’s idiosyncratic performance cannot save this film when it hits its plateaus, of which there are many.
A secondary effect of this plateauing is that it shows the seams in the personality of Moondog. Sure, he can be a lovable drinking partner with a few elegant things to say. But underneath his beach bum exterior is not the unparalleled artistic genius that the script promises. Instead, there is a vacant, morally bankrupt freeloader who doesn’t take responsibility for his actions or lack thereof.
While this may be the purpose of Korine’s exploration of Moondog, there is no way of knowing this for certain. With his fly on the wall style, Korine avoids any judgment. And seeing as nearly every single character surrounding Moondog is infatuated by his grody nonchalance, it is hard to not feel like the movie asks us to love him, as well. Of course, the easy defense of this movie will be that this infatuation is merely part of the larger indictment. Or the defense will be that Moondog is somehow more ethically acute than he lets on.
There is evidence in the text for both arguments. And there are snippets of dialogue that point toward Korine making some sort of statement. Jonah Hill’s agent character mentions loving being rich, because it means you can force people to do whatever you want and they can’t do anything about it. Moondog says, as it pertains to large amounts of money and personal freedom, “we can do whatever we want or nothing at all.”
Either way, it is an exploration in service of little. There is fun to be had, a contact high during the journey, but the film sags under its own freewheeling carelessness. Whether you interpret everything or nothing, The Beach Bum is a victim of its own bumming around. The most articulate poet in the world couldn’t make 100 minutes of PBR tallboy navel-gazing exciting. The one we get, whose phallic fascination challenges the notion of what poetry is, only goes so far.
The Beach Bum: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)