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Review: 'The Beach Bum' seeks to provoke, but actually just irritates

Harmony Korine's stoner comedy is heavy on the stoner, and light on the comedy

Matthew McConaughey as Moondog in ‘The Beach Bum’ Neon and Vice
Matthew McConaughey as Moondog in ‘The Beach Bum’ Neon and Vice

Harmony Korine has a well-­deserved reputation as a ­provocateur, and The Beach Bum is no exception.

Where this film differs from its predecessors is that, while Korine routinely uses utterly dislikeable characters in his movies, there usually appears to be a reason for doing so. Kids, which came out in 1995 and was scripted by him, was a damning indictment of a generation of American teenagers oblivious to the consequences of their hedonism. His 2012 film, Spring Breakers, took a similar line to Kids, an abject warning about the dangers of a superficial, consequence-blind younger generation.

With The Beach Bum we get none of this. Matthew McConaughey’s Moondog is a washed-up poet who flits from bar to girl to substance abuse on a daily basis thanks to having married into the money of his wife, played by Isla Fisher. It’s probably McConaughey’s most McConaughy role to date. The actor is well-known for his hedonistic lifestyle, and has even revealed in interviews that some of the substances imbibed in the movie were real.

It’s this commitment to realism that forms the film’s biggest flaw. The Beach Bum is certainly brave in its abandonment of any real narrative structure and its refusal to make a single character even remotely likeable. But as McConaughey stumbles dazed from one bar to the next, the overall feeling is akin to that of meeting friends at a party when they’ve already been there for eight hours and you’ve come straight from work. It’s occasionally amusing, but mostly annoying.

The actor isn’t alone in being an irritation. It’s hard to understand why his moneyed wife would put up with his constant infidelity, complete lack of purpose and generally stupefied state of mind, but given the fact that her solution to this situation is having an affair with his supposed best friend, a would-be rapper played by Snoop Dogg, we’re not exactly prone to offer too much sympathy.

His agent, meanwhile, played by a ludicrously Southern-accented Jonah Hill, lives by the motto that if you’re rich, you can treat everyone around you like dirt and “they have to take it”, while Zac Efron’s rehab patient is someone you simply wouldn’t want to waste two minutes of your time with.

Matthew McConaughey, left, and Snoop Dogg in a scene from 'The Beach Bum'. Neon via AP
Matthew McConaughey, left, and Snoop Dogg in a scene from 'The Beach Bum'. Neon via AP

Korine likes to provoke, we know that. But by inviting us to look in on a bunch of people we can’t stand, having a wild party we’re not invited to, he actually alienates his audience.

Loveable wasters aren’t hard to do. Look at The Big Lebowski’s The Dude, Trainspotting’s entire cast or Bill and Ted for tips. There’s nothing loveable about Moondog though. He’s simply the kind of person you would want to slap if you met him. He’s late for his own daughter’s wedding, and makes himself the centre of attention when he finally shows up, court orders slide off him as if he’s made of Teflon, and even a close family death can’t distract him from his one-man mission to get thoroughly wasted.

If Korine’s previous films served as a warning of the consequences of selfishness and shallowness, The Beach Bum is the exact opposite. As the movie draws to its conclusion, we should be rooting for Moondog as he struggles to complete his magnum opus and prove to us that, for all his flaws, he is at least a great writer.

In reality, we simply don’t care because we know this man is charmed. However bad things get, Moondog will drink and smoke his way through it, and everything will work out fine. Like much about this film, it’s frankly quite annoying.

Updated: May 15, 2019 07:37 PM



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