Harmony Korine has spent much of his cinematic career walking his audience through the depths of Hell in films like the poverty-stricken Gummo, the schizophrenic nightmare Julien Donkey-Boy, and his candy-colored, millennial opus Spring Breakers (his first Floridian foray). He's spent some time in Purgatory too (as in his offbeat 2007 drama Mister Lonely, about a commune of celebrity impersonators). In his newest film, The Beach Bum, artist, writer, poet, director Korine may have finally found what he was looking fo all along: a little bit of Heaven.
Narrative and plot don't chug along, machine-like, in any of Korine's work, least of all The Beach Bum; rather, his tale of weirdo hedonistic poet Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) and his quest to finish his Great American Novel for the love of his wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), gently unfurls like ribbons of marijuana smoke from the grizzled mouth of a once-great writer/current drifter. Korine is happy to let his film sail along, luxuriate in particular moments, elliptically recall the past, or burst briefly into the future. If Spring Breakers could be compared structurally to a pop song, The Beach Bum is more like a Jimmy Buffett record (more on him later). Scenery changes mid-conversation, and the movie begs a writer to bust out the word "hallucinatory" to describe its relationship to time and space. It is a pleasant, buoyant, joyful approximation of being happily stoned, with Moondog bubbling from one scenario to the next without too much thought.
In an oversized, barely buttoned canary yellow shirt, McConaughey easily taps into Moondog's hippie-dippy attitude, here defined by a taste for excess rooted in benevolence and a genuine desire to find what little good life has left to offer him. He sails around Key West and Miami, almost floating on air when he's not stumbling about, crab-like, on land. He throws back beers and burns through blunts like a pro, rubbing shoulders with Snoop Dog and Martin Lawrence (owner of a coke-addled parrot), emitting a hyena-like laugh infused with euphoria and kindness. The character waddles along, ready for whatever's next—even when he decides to go to, and promptly skip out on, rehab.
Korine's unusual brand of abrasive, provocative filmmaking (he was the first American director to take the "Vow of Chastity" and make a Dogme 95 film—the Danish manifesto calling for a back-to-basics approach to form), employs guns, drugs, and detritus to signify an atrophying American Dream. For those familiar with his work, the first ten minutes or so of The Beach Bum will unsettle, because the film is imbued with a distinctly un-Harmony-ious tenderness and thoughtful sentimentality. But soon enough, a sun-drenched ecstasy leaches its way into Benoît Debie's cinematography, as does a circuitous manner of exploring Moondog's creative process.