The title character in The Beach Bum, a stoner-poet named Moondog, is the part Matthew McConaughey was born to play, and he is indeed at his McConaughey-est here: grinning, giggling, pontificating, publicly urinating, stumbling hazily from one party to the next, just generally living his best life. But the film is written and directed by the aggressively abrasive Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers, Spring Breakers), so Moondog’s “best life” also includes almost missing his daughter’s wedding because he’s banging a waitress, breaking out of court-ordered rehab, and mugging an old man for cash to buy drugs with Zac Efron (in the James Franco role). Korine finds these things adorable and hilarious, all the more so because Moondog gets away with everything, the li’l rascal. The whole movie is an unwitting tribute to white privilege.
Moondog is understood by the world at large to be a poetic genius, albeit a sloppy, unreliable one who hasn’t produced anything new in years. His Louisiana-accented agent (Jonah Hill) gets him speaking gigs here and there, and he lives in Miami with his fabulously wealthy wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), who shares his amoral worldview of having no values and valuing nothing. When she dies in a car accident, she leaves behind an ultimatum: Moondog has a year to finally finish the book he’s been writing forever or else he gets none of her money.
Cute-sounding premise, and John Debney’s whimsical musical score matches it — but, again, there’s the Korine factor. Every instance of amusing irresponsibility — Moondog palling around with a rapper named Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) or a dolphin-tour guide named Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), whose foot gets bitten off by a shark — is counteracted by something obscene, reckless, or cruel. We’re supposed to find Moondog charming, impish, outlandish, and endearing, but I mostly found him appalling and unlikable. I kept judging him, which is awkward when the movie is doing the opposite.
Is this a me problem, not a Harmony Korine problem? Maybe. But I’m the one writing the review, so you’re stuck with it. Korine shows undeniable talent and craftsmanship, with a playfulness that occasionally serves him well. Spring Breakers was appalling too, but mesmerizing and cautionary: a fun nightmare. The Beach Bum feels like a nightmare too, only it doesn’t acknowledge that it is one. Gleeful anarchy is one thing; this is malevolent anarchy, bad luck for anyone who isn’t Moondog.