The Beach Bum (2019) by Harmony Korine
Review by Nathan Smith
The first thing we see Moondog do is save a stray cat. Opening with that old screenwriting adage— if you want us to like your character, write a scene in which they save a cat — might make you think we’re supposed to be endeared to the titular sea-side ass of Harmony Korine’s latest film. But Moondog isn’t like the rest of us Earthlings; he’s a reggie Raskolnikov who transcended everyone else’s opinion of him long ago. It doesn’t matter how many times he gets called an asshole — as he gleefully informs us, he’ll go as low as can go to get high.
Harmony Korine also inhabits his own reality. He’s a Southerner, but he became a name in New York. He made a Dogme 95 movie, he palled around with Gus Van Sant, but I don’t think you could really assign him to a movement or wave of filmmakers. Spring Breakers was his most mainstream success, but any chance he might pivot to prestige film-making has evaporated. Aside from the occasional for-hire project, he’s always done exactly what he’s wanted to do, whether that’s a David Blaine TV special or more serious gallery work.
Korine’s characters are almost always searching for utopia, from the celebrity impersonators who form their own commune in Mister Lonely, to the college girls searching for a candy-colored fantasyland in Spring Breakers, to the elderly outsiders of Trash Humpers. The utopia of The Beach Bum is Moondog’s entire life. Everyone he knows excuses his behavior because he’s from a different dimension; his supposed artistic brilliance has afforded him the ability to live life however he damn well pleases.
This is maybe the most personal Korine has ever gotten; like Moondog, people have been calling him a savant for over twenty years, and it’s allowed him to build a career based almost entirely on hijinks, shenanigans, and bad behavior. But look closer, and neither Moondog nor Harmony are quite who they claim to be. Moondog sails on thanks to the enormous fortune of his loving wife Minnie (Isla Fisher), who averts her eyes from Moondog’s increasingly absurd feats of adultery because he gives her such good oral pleasure. While Moondog is boning his way up and down the Keys, Minnie’s having an affair of her own with Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), the self-described “R&B singer with a big ding-a-ling.”
Korine’s feature filmmaking career has hit choppy water since Spring Breakers — The Beach Bum only came together after a planned crime epic called The Trap, which would have starred everyone from Al Pacino to Gucci Mane, fell through. Though he still positions himself as an outsider artist — and after the weak box office performance ofThe Beach Bum, maybe he actually will be once again — Korine keeps himself afloat with commercial work: Under Armour ads, Gucci lookbooks, Rihanna and Black Keys music videos. The kid who got banned from Letterman for going through Meryl Streep’s purse looks a little bit more like the establishment now than he did back in his tap-dancing days.
The Beach Bum, then, is something of a creative mid-life crisis for Korine, though that makes it sound more serious than it is. After the wedding of his daughter to a “limp-dick” husband and Minnie’s sudden death, Moondog is forced to reevaluate his life and rededicate himself to his art. Minnie’s will states that Moondog will be cut off from her enormous fortune until he delivers what she hopes will be “the next Great American Novel.” Rather than sit down at the typewriter and churn that puppy out, Moondog does what any self-respecting wordsmith would do: procrastinate, embarking upon a lost weekend of Biblical proportions. Moondog crowns himself king of the vagrants, which lands him a stint in rehab, where he meets Zac Efron, an evangelical roller skater who wears JNCO Jeans, blasts Creed, and resides atop an ever-present cloud of vape smoke. After busting out and committing a few petty crimes, Moondog starts a dolphin tour business with Martin Lawrence, a Vietnam Vet who loses a foot in a shark attack. Before burning the house down one last time, he shares a jam session and some big league tokes with Jimmy Buffett and Lingerie.
There’s always a bit of Tod Browning to Harmony Korine: even in a film as broad as this, a bit of mondo documentary always bleeds through. But the filmmaker The Beach Bum most reminded me of is Jean Vigo. In one sequence, after he has been cast out of Minnie’s house, Moondog leads a parade of the homeless back to her mansion, which they proceed to dismantle piece by piece; I heard an echo of Vigo’s Zéro de conduite in the slow-motion footage of down feathers floating in the sunlight. Matthew McConaughey’s performance reminds me less of Lebowski and more of Père Jules, the barge captain played by Michel Simon in L’atalante, who, like Moondog, collects felines, lady friends, and various bric-a-brac from his yarns across the sea. Jean Vigo’s poetic realism was always politically informed: his father was Miguel Almereyda, a French anarchist and writer who had changed his last name from Vigo to an anagram of the phrase “There will be shit,” a Korine-like lifestyle choice if there ever was one. Korine isn’t really an explicitly political filmmaker, more anarchic than anarchist, but his spirit is united with Vigo’s in his devotion to those who make their living on society’s extremities.
For Moondog, the solution to creative stagnation is self-destruction. For Korine, the answer is much the same — The Beach Bum is, and I mean this as a good thing, something close to career suicide. It’s the textbook definition of a shaggy dog story, all loosey-goosey and rough around the edges, but that’s because it’s about a shaggy dog life. It’s cinema du jam band: whether or not you dig what it’s putting down depends on whether or not you have the patience for pure vibe. Moondog lives his life in the riff zone, somewhere between Shia LaBeouf’s freestyle raps and vulgar Bukowski verses written in wet ink and saline on the napkin of a cocktail lounge. He’s a phoenix who rises from the roach left in an ashtray, as at home among the homeless as he is in glass palaces. Your mileage may vary, but it’s a wavelength I didn’t mind tuning into for 90 minutes.
When Moondog finally finishes his novel and accesses Minnie’s fortune, what he does probably comes as no surprise: he smokes it. Every last dollar is taken out of the bank and given a Viking funeral before Moondog floats on down to the next town. Korine, who has been involved in several mysterious fires, also has the carpetbagging bug, swapping his native Nashville for the Sunshine State. Once he’s worn out his welcome down South, I’m sure he’ll find somewhere else to shack up, another gig to sustain himself, a new youth-oriented multimedia platform to fund him. And no matter what he does or where he wanders off to, it’ll always feel like he’s getting away with something. Harmony’s gonna keep lighting money on fire so long as we keep giving to him.