Matthew McConaughey is at his dirt bag finest as a good-time Charlie stoner-poet named Moondog in Harmony Korine’s “The Beach Bum,” a bizarre and transfixing carnival of vulgarity and vice.
In some ways it’s the part he was born to play. Whether or not that’s a good thing for him, or unsuspecting audiences, is unclear, but McConaughey gives and bares (nearly) all for this film. And it mostly works. Korine, with the help of his innately charismatic star and talented cinematographer Benoit Debie, nearly pulls off an incredible trick having made a flagrant and aggressively R-rated celebration of South Florida hedonism and depravity that’s also kind of funny and even, sometimes, oddly sweet and charming.
It’s hard not to stress just how strange a movie “The Beach Bum” is, although anyone familiar with Korine’s other films, “Spring Breakers” probably being the most mainstream of the batch, won’t be all that surprised. He has set this odyssey in and around Miami and the Florida Keys, which have never looked more neon, rotted or depraved.
Moondog is introduced in resplendent glory in the Keys, where the cannabis and women are as plentiful as ocean water and there for the taking, and the bras and tops scarce. He is tanned to a crisp; with a mop of fried, shaggy blond locks framing his nearly unrecognizable face. At times you even forget there’s a handsome actor underneath the tacky wraparound sunglasses.
He is a giggling burnout supreme with an ever-present PBR tallboy, who you suspect might be homeless, or at least veering toward that state. Suffice it to say, it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that he has a wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), a grown daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen) and a waterfront mansion back in Miami. “I forgot how rich we are,” Moondog opines to Minnie, who is the walking embodiment of trashy affluence. She too is having an affair with a wealthy weed dealer named Lingerie (Snoop Dogg).
But for some reason she loves her loser husband. “He’s from another dimension,” Minnie coos, as an apparent way of explaining away all of his unconventional ways. He’s a genius, we’re told, and a celebrated poet whose agent (played by a very over-the-top Jonah Hill) is itching for a follow-up. When things go awry and he loses everything, it’s his typewriter that he brings along with him in a silky white sack that he slings casually over his shoulder.
The success of the whole endeavor might come down to exactly how on board you are with Moondog’s pursuit of fun, which starts to seriously curdle during an overextended segment with Zac Efron, who plays a deviant who Moondog goes on an escape-from-rehab bender with. The destruction and havoc he incites starts to feel less like comedy and more like a horror movie. By the time you get to meet Martin Lawrence’s Captain Wack, Moondog and the film have truly checked out of planet Earth and settled entirely on this other dimension.
There is a lot of fun to be had living in Moondog’s world for 95 minutes, and the film goes down suspiciously easy for something so ugly and amoral. But it’s also no wonder why once you’re out of the intoxicating haze of Korine’s milieu that a bad taste starts to form.
Enjoy the buzz while you can, because the come down is a serious bummer.
“The Beach Bum,” a Neon release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for pervasive drug and alcohol use, language throughout, nudity and some strong sexual content.” Running time: