Director Harmony Korine’s newest feature, The Beach Bum, seems the likely follow-up to his 2013 candy-coated crime caper Spring Breakers. Substitute your Vanessa Hudgens for Zac Efron and your James Franco for Matthew McConaughey and the casting decisions to break away from type seem borderline formulaic. Tonally, the films are similar, with wandering, boozy shots and dialogue seemingly lifted right from your acid casualty neighbor and color cues taken from him as well.
Where Beach Bum diverges, however, is in substance. While leisure and pleasure seem the ultimate goal of both McConaughey’s Moondog and the girls of Breakers, the method of getting there differs wildly. Crime sprees and social climbing are the girls' preferred method. Laying back and taking the world in one toke at a time is Moondog’s. While heavy smoking and sleeping around might seem like a philosophically void path to enlightenment, it’s really the only way there in an America who’s ethos is to constantly tell you to want more, buy more, be more.
Every Hollywood movie builds up this idea, from foundational kids' animation to aspirational teen drama to middle-aged career comedy and beyond. And what better way to respond to that constant pressure than to do and be nothing at all? Sure, Moondog has written fairly successful poetry and given the odd public speech, but the practice he preaches is the one he lives, a sort of contagious cosmic hedonism. Partying with him will leave you a happier, more content person, even if you happen to lose a foot, a husband or a few million dollars in the process. Even the worst possible outcome has some sort of humor to it, and it’s really only a crisis if you give it credit, or at least so says Matthew McConaughey, on his character’s philosophy.
In keeping with Korine’s original approach to filmmaking, each scene is distinct. His older films, Gummo and Julien Donkey Boy, cut from shock to shock and feature no obvious plotline, character development, or enlightening lesson. Beach Bum is the 21st-century update, still without a Hollywood screenwriter’s favorite “character arc” or sunset ending. Now, Korine relocates his infamous shock treatment to the pleasure center— boobs and butts galore! — and happy endings are instead distributed throughout, right from the very first scene. Moondog wanders from situation to situation, cameo to cameo, and no matter how dire each set up appears, none of them impact him for much longer than his last toke did.
It’s easy to read Korine’s recent works as plain ol’ silly, and maybe it’s over-analysis to argue that his shift in tone from 90s pessimism to this decade’s indulgence is perfectly in tune with the changing times. But! Maybe it’s not, and Korine’s Beach Bum is at once both critical of the devil-may-care lifestyle and lauding it as an exemplar of the best way to live life. The world feels so serious these days and everything seems like it’s falling apart, getting exponentially worse or going to end entirely.
Of course, the world is serious and you should care, but rather than submit to the ultimate bummer, try your hand at pursuing nothing at all, and doing it happily, Moondog style. Preferably in a captain’s hat, joint in hand and setting off a money-laden explosion for the tourists in the Florida Keys.