By Jim Slotek
There are things to recommend in The Beach Bum, Harmony Korine’s aimless tale of a happily drunk-and-stoned famous poet who haunts the Florida Keys. Among them: an addictive soundtrack that could make you rethink the heinousness of yacht rock, and a parade of colourful, charismatic characters.
Unfortunately, the lead character is not among the latter.
Moondog, who’s sort of a Hunter Thompson without the danger or rages, should be the kind of hard-partying character Matthew McConaughey nails, being a veteran naked bongo player and all. But Moondog’s mood range is a flat-line – a blissfully inebriated flat-line to be sure, but one without remorse, low-points or even a single hangover. This, despite chain-toking, doing lines of coke and knocking back beers in virtually every scene in the movie.
By comparison, The Big Lebowski’s more charming Dude – who can’t help but enter your mind as The Beach Bum progresses – practically displayed major mood swings.
The Beach Bum opens right away with a pop cultural left hook, early-‘80s singer Bertie Higgins onstage at a Florida beach party, reprising his underappreciated 1982 hit Key Largo. It’s the kind of thing you can expect from a movie that eventually puts Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett in a hot tub milieu passing around a cigar-sized joint. (The two actually wrote a song together for the soundtrack).
As we meet him, Moondog is messed up to an arrestable degree – a state in which he will pretty much remain. He takes stages and microphones that don’t belong to him to recite stoned poetry that the audience goes wild over. Yeah, he’s a sloppy drunk, but that’s just Moondog. And when he nearly misses his daughter’s wedding because he’s having sex in a restaurant kitchen, well, that’s just Moondog.
And when he and his ex-wife (Isla Fisher) celebrate their daughter’s wedding with a night of increasingly reckless behavior, well that’s just Moondog.
What amounts to the central drama involves the death of a character and the threatened cutting-off of our blitzed Bard from all funds until he comes up with a new book (oh, and there’s a court-ordered stint in rehab). Through it all, the blissed-out expression on our hero’s face seldom changes. He’s a cypher, wandering through a passing parade of people who could be classified as “Florida Man” in the bizarro news-report sense.
These include a crazily punked-out fellow rehab inmate (Zac Efron) who helps Moondog escape and officially become a fugitive, a dangerously coked-out dolphin-tour boat captain (Martin Lawrence) who brags that only four customers have died on his watch, a legally-blind and stoned Jamaican drug-plane pilot (Donovan St V. Williams), and Moondog’s flamboyant literary agent Lewis (Jonah Hill, variously channeling Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote).
And then there’s Snoop’s character (and Moondog’s best friend) Lingerie, a sort of drug visionary and gangsta, who’s perfected a strain of Jamaican weed of phantasmagoric proportions, such that partaking is a purple-lit religious experience.
As I run through them, I realize I like every character in this movie more than the title character. Moondog never seems like a writer sweating his work. There’s a repeated motif of him admiringly watching old video of an early poetry-read to what seems like a bored outdoor audience. It’s like an inebriated take on Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but again, there’s no expression of what this nondescript “high point” means to him.
Though Korine (Spring Breakers) doesn’t figure out how to make his protagonist breathe (at least smokelessly), he does do a commendable job of making the Florida Keys come alive with sunshine, pastel colours and partying. The Beach Bum is a movie fully capable of giving you a contact high, and putting you on the next plane to Miami.
The Beach Bum. Written and directed by Harmony Korine. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Jonah Hill. Opens wide, Friday, March 29.