SXSW review: The Beach Bum is a bummer to watch

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum is an unloveable tale of male pretension that gives Matthew McConaughey nothing to do but rely on his tropes.

Director Harmony Korine has a very specific aesthetic and storytelling sensibility. Audiences either love him or hate him. His last film, 2012’s Spring Breakers, showed Korine at his most accessible, yet that film’s aimless storytelling and vulgar blending of sex and drama attracted as many as it repelled. His latest, The Beach Bum, is Korine at his Korine-iest, with a non-existent plot that does nothing with its leading man we haven’t seen him do before. The Beach Bum is about a man failing upward, a sentiment that could be lobbed at Harmony Korine himself.

In the sun-bleached city of Key West lives Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a supposedly brilliant poet who lives off his wealthy wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher). But when Minnie dies, Moondog is forced to find some meaning in his life. Or not.

The Beach Bum is what you get when you ask Matthew McConaughey to show us what Wooderson from Dazed and Confused has been doing for the last 26 years. Audiences have seen McConaughey play this character before: a burned-out stoner who giggles over his own bon mots. In this case, the surrounding cast take those rhymes seriously. Everyone, from Minnie to their daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen) to his best friend, Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), remind the audience that Moondog is a “brilliant” poet, “a genius” who’s self-published a string of books but, for reasons unclear, hasn’t finished that novel of his.

The story of the narcissistic, blocked artiste is nothing new, but here there’s absolutely zero foundation for Moondog’s intelligence short of every character around him being dumb. In movies like Inside Llewyn Davis or Miles from Blindspotting, the characters are self-destructive but there’s plenty of evidence for their brilliance. Here, we hear McConaughey mumble some rhymes, usually involving sex, his penis, or plagiarizing other famous writers, and are told this is stuff penned by the angels themselves.  Is Korine trolling us on the nature of genius? I’d say yes if the movie weren’t 95 minutes of wandering around in search of…something.

It’s laughable that Korine has a writing credit, as it implies there’s a script at all. The movie’s barebones plot is that Moondog has to struggle without money in the wake of his wife’s demise. Leading up to that we watch Moondog get up, find a cat — the pet of all shiftless layabouts — and spend his days getting high, having topless women feed him, and singing with Jimmy Buffett. Moondog, in essence, creates his own Margaritaville, but don’t say it’s his fault! McConaughey doesn’t do any heavy lifting, acting wise, and at this point we have to ask if he’s done this character to death.

His relationship with Fisher’s Minnie seems to extend no further than the physical. The two are reunited after a period of time and immediately spend their time dancing and having sex. That’s when Moondog isn’t having sex with random other women. When he discovers Minnie is fooling around with another man it appears to bother him, but just as quickly Minnie is punished and leaves the film. But thank goodness we got to see Fisher in a series of skimpy outfits, right? It’s sad to  see Fisher here because, while she always gives 100%, this role is so beneath her. The movie gives her nothing to do but receive sex, talk about sex, and have others talk about her purely in sexual terms.

The treatment of his daughter isn’t any better. LaVie Owen is lovely, but she spends her entire runtime smiling politely at her on-screen father’s crazy antics. As he describes, in graphic detail because the film doesn’t know any other way, ripping apart his wife’s womb to deliver his daughter (at her wedding, no less), the young girl just stands there and smiles in a way that says, “Aw, dad, not the placenta story again.” This is a world where men want to hang out with Moondog, and women just find him to be so darn cheeky!

It’s not that Moondog’s a compelling antihero, there’s nothing to draw audiences in because the film lays there like the bum it is. Moondog, and the story itself, have no momentum. Even when the film attempts to find a plot by sending Moondog to rehab it leads to another of an endless series of soundtrack heavy montages that are only discernible based on the costar dancing opposite McConaughey. In this case that includes Snoop Dogg playing himself as much as McConaughey does. Zac Efron plays a rehab resident named Flicker – he has a name? – who engages in crimes then disappears into a different movie. And Jonah Hill attempts to overshadow James Franco’s Alien from Spring Breakers with his portrayal of Moondog’s publisher, Lewis. Korine really loves men co-opting African-American gangster cadences, doesn’t he? The treatment of women of color in this movie is downright reprehensible, but it’s Korine; it’s just another day at the office.

Next: SXSW review: Go Back to China is a delightful time

There will be those who worship at the altar of The Beach Bum, explaining away all its problems with a flippant “that’s the point. Korine wants you to think that way.” I call shenanigans on all that. The Beach Bum is a pretentious, erratic, uninteresting movie that revels in masculinity and hedonism. Remember, boys, it’s okay to be terrible so long as you’re happy!

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