‘The Beach Bum’ (2019) Review: A Film So Lucid, So Beautiful and So Elusive All The More

By Steve Pulaski

Harmony Korine is a force to be reckoned with, and the sad fact is that desperately few people know him by name. The same man who made an unparalleled splash on the screenwriting scene with Kids, a raw and honest look at inner-city adolescence, went on to make one of the most surreal and subtextually layered films with Spring Breakers this year, and not nearly as many people gave him the appropriate credit. Don’t get me started on the nightmarish yet heavenly qualities of Trash Humpers either. His films aren’t easily understood. I’d be a bold-faced liar if I said I could cogently summarize the profound themes and ideas in any one of his pictures. But I find them extremely immersive and enjoyable, and once you come off the high that you experience while watching one, you might find some solace in attempting to dissect them. Or, most likely, circle back to certain scenes and lines you enjoyed or laughed at the most.

The Beach Bum, his first film since Spring Breakers, shockingly seven years ago, is an experience that ever-so-beautifully compliments its lead character. Matthew McConaughey sinks into the role of a free-spirit, unbound by accountability and socialization, living unchained in a chaotic world. A degenerate by definition but an admirable one at that, McConaughey’s Moondog is a beloved poet living a hedonistic lifestyle off the Florida coast. His wife, Minnie, is a sexually insatiable nymph played by Isla Fisher, who is stunningly elegant despite her depravities. Moondog benefits from Minnie’s riches, which fund his misadventures that are often complimented with Pabst Blue Ribbon, liquor, and a supply of weed that would make the cartel’s eyes bulge.

“He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man,” says his daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen) early in the film. “He’s brilliant,” she even goes as far as to tell her new husband. Moondog lugs around a white cat he found on the streets of Florida, aided in his shenanigans by Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) and Jimmy Buffett. Some of his daily festivities involve gallivanting with topless women, pushing strangers off docks into the ocean below, smashing bottles over craniums, and breaking out of rehab about 20 minutes after he entered. The very remnants of a conflict arise when Minnie dies in an accident one could call inevitable as opposed to tragic, and in her will, she specifically states that Moondog is not entitled to his half of her riches until he publishes his book of poetry. As such, the latter half is sprinkled with the musings only a conked-out stoner with a drinking problem could conjure up in his hazy mind. Charles Bukowski himself would be notably stunned by his liberated state.

Time for the roll-call of Moondog’s friends. On top of Lingerie, his right-hand-man, there is Lewis, his literary agent, played by Jonah Hill with an indescribably reedy accent, who calls him as if to remind him that his job is a writer. Flicker (Zac Efron with a unique “panini beard”) helps him break out of rehab, and informs him, “Jesus already died for our sins, we can do whatever we want!,” and Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence, someone we need more of in these times), an inept goof who runs a dolphin-tour through the coasts and owns a cocaine-addicted parrot. Jimmy Buffett shows up a handful of times, either to play a familiar tune, or indulge in a Raw cone packed with weed while him, Moondog, and Lingerie lounge in a hot-tub. And whether it’s Snoop’s special blend of weed or years worth of diverse risk-taking in his film roles, something, yet again, makes McConaughey an electric, hall-of-fame worthy talent.

Korine adopts the same sort of “liquid narrative” he used for Spring Breakers, essentially letting the life of Moondog be illustrated through a series of vignettes. Korine has always been something of an “in the moment” filmmaker, captivated by the contemporary insofar as not to get to the bottom of why people are so in search of pleasure, but the great lengths they’ll go to get it. Moondog’s life works in seconds. Within a split second, he’ll decide whether to leap into a pool with all of his clothes on, leaving only his hand extended out of the water so as not to soil his joint, or fling a wheelchair-bound old lady into a brick wall. Consequences don’t exist. He’ll find a way out. He always does.

What entails for 90 elating minutes is a hypnotic fever-dream with a thin narrative that packs a great deal of nuance and subtext. Korine follows this delightful bunch of loons, milking all the debauchery he can conceptualize for laughs, winces, and sighs of exhaustion. Your mileage will definitely vary. He keeps consistent with the neon-soaked cinematography from his previous film, reenlisting the help of Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie to make a colorful explosion out of this tropical paradise. It’s as gorgeous as it is disgusting; with an abundance of radiant color-vomit soaking the screen, it shows you just how vapid the pursuit of happiness and uncompromising freedom can be. But it damn sure is pretty.

I must make light of the film’s soundtrack, which is one of the best I’ve heard in years. Not many films could get away with blending “Margaritaville” with Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown,” but Korine does so fearlessly all the more. Throw in an original from Buffett and Snoop called “Moonfog” — a song written and recorded at the insistence of Korine, who himself was inspired by Buffett’s songs “A Pirate Looks at 40” and the aforementioned “Margaritaville” to make this film — and you have a score that’s downright blissing.

Korine’s focal points for his films have always stemmed from a fascination with the scuzzy underbelly of life, often characterized by self-indulgence, mental illness, isolationism, destructive adolescence, and poverty. The Beach Bum doubles down and gives us the exotic fantasy that only the 2010s could effectively house, making the excess of the eighties seem unremarkable. It’s a film so lucid, so beautiful, and so elusive all the more.

Grade: A-