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Chaos in the Keys

‘The Beach Bum’ is a beautiful ride to the bottom

Matthew McConaughey in “The Beach Bum”

Harmony Korine made his name with outsider art films that performed open heart surgery on “white trash” America. Working with the beauty and terror of the Midwest—its eccentricity, abuse, and addiction—he captured the fringes of American life with honest sublimity in early films like “Gummo” and “Julien Donkey-Boy.” These themes carry over to “The Beach Bum,” but here they are informed by a maturing of Korine’s career since his prodigal debut in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Korine’s Technicolor 2012 crime romp, “Spring Breakers,” lies somewhere between the early films and this new release. But where the former represented an escapism from Middle America to fun-loving Florida (until being consumed by its criminal elements), “The Beach Bum” wholly embraces that Floridian setting as an earthly paradise or Boschian pleasure limbo. His earlier films are nightmares, but this one is a reverie that embraces hedonistic life and “fun”—the mantra of its protagonist, Moondog.

Played by a pitch-perfect Matthew McConaughey, Moondog is a freewheeling poet prone to substance abuse and creative outbursts that bring listeners to tears. McConaughey’s character is slightly reminiscent of his real-life namesake, the costumed “Viking of 6th Avenue,” an American composer and writer who performed from 1940-1975. But his character is a composite of several unhinged creative figures, such as American poet Richard Brautigan. Korine says Moondog was mainly inspired by those he crossed paths with in Miami and Key West, Florida, where most of the film takes place and the filmmaker resides.

Raw, full of sensuality and sexual splendor, “The Beach Bum” is the kind of love story only Korine could tell. Moondog smokes joints held between the toes of his wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) and performs cunnilingus on her while she’s getting her nails done poolside. He drifts around, a millionaire tramp of dialectic chaos, fueled by weed and PBR, exhibiting Korine’s non-narrative magic.

Like “Spring Breakers,” Korine’s latest features a perplexing mix of well-known actors and musicians, from Zac Efron and Jonah Hill to Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffet. The film’s soundtrack is notably full of dad-rock classics and Buffet numbers that play on the film’s retirement theme and Key West setting.

The youth culture of Korine’s early work is embodied in Zac Efron’s character Flicker. Moondog meets Flicker in rehab, but Korine leaves youth behind to explore midlife crises, paternity, and the nature of creativity. In a turn toward these more relatable themes, “The Beach Bum” represents what has always set Korine apart, and excels where “Spring Breakers” fell short.

Since his 1997 directorial debut, Korine is even more in-tune today with the fine balance between degradation and promise in America. Back then, he expressed this as many young artists do, by showing depravity and destruction. In 2019, he reveals that our opulence and fantasies will destroy us. America is no longer consuming itself from the inside out, but from the top down. With “The Beach Bum” a ride to the bottom is inevitable, but art—poetry—is our only redeeming quality.

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