The Beach Bum April 12, 2019
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
onsidering everything that happens to Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), the protagonist of The Beach Bum (2019), over the course of a season, we find it surprising that there never comes a point where we find him sitting down, hunched over with his head in his hands, moaning, “the world’s out to get me.” We get the opposite. “I’m quite certain that the world is conspiring to make me happy,” he
tells an inquisitive reporter toward the end of the film.
If Moondog claims such a thing, I suppose we’re meant to also languish in that optimism. But it’s pretty bewildering, to say the least, that he’s able to remain in such good spirits. In just the last few months, he’s lost someone close to him in a tragic head-on collision, almost ruined his daughter’s (Stefania LaVie Owen) wedding, found out that his wife’s (an excellent Isla Fisher) been having an affair with a close buddy (Snoop Dogg), gotten arrested several times, broken out of rehab, seen a friend’s (Martin Lawrence) foot get scarfed down by a pack of sharks, among other things.
But, then again, if you’re someone like Moondog, it only makes sense that tragedy be treated akin to a longer-than-usual downhill slope in a lifelong rollercoaster ride. This man is such a hedonist that calling him a hedonist seems like something of an understatement. He’s perpetually cross-faded, always with a woman (largely sex workers) by his side, usually milling about on his boat, perennially a fixture at parties, clubs, and bars; he’s a local legend in the Florida Keys in which he calls home, a title that’s been brought on not just by the fact that he’s an acclaimed writer — a bard for the debauched, you might say — but by the reality that he’s just everywhere.
He also stands out like a traffic cone: tall and deeply tan, with Iggy Pop’s same surfer-dude hairdo, usually wearing floral touristy garb, constantly guffawing. Moondog is a character always a figurative centimeter away from seeming like a caricature. Yet McConaughey, unsurprisingly comfortable playing this go-with-the-flow brand of character, is so good at being nutty without being unbelievably so that we can see the humanity in this putative cartoon of a man.
The Beach Bum was written and directed by Harmony Korine, the iconoclast whose last movie, Spring Breakers (2012), netted him some of the best reviews of his career. The Beach Bum, like that film, is a departure from the movies which bolstered the earlier part of Korine's oeuvre: big-budgeted (for him, that is), star-studded. But it’s also accessible and appealing in such a way that makes the film, which is fundamentally a feature-length misadventure that happens to be really funny, ripe for generous comparisons to something like The Big Lebowski (1998). The plot’s less Chandler-esque, sure. But other things about the two features — their relaxed and daffy protagonists, their large assembly of as-wacky supporting characters, their refreshing ways of putting a relentlessly positive outlook on a pedestal — link them.
The darkness is more pronounced in The Beach Bum. But Korine, avoiding making it all seem like a feature-length version of a bloody action scene being backed by 1950s pop music, so effectively shows the world through Moondog’s glassy eyes that the really bad shit might as well be undergirded by the tromping Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present) theme. It’s the kind of comedy where even the bleakest turns of events come with a snicker. (The earlier-mentioned foot-chomping incident is arguably among the decade’s funniest comic sequences.)
Moondog is far more iniquitous a person than the largely harmless The Dude (Jeff Bridges). He’s a heedless property destroyer and petty thief; there’s a moment when he and the human stick of dynamite with whom he escapes rehab (Zac Efron) smash a glass bottle over the head of a man in a wheelchair and then proceed to fleece him as he lay unconscious on the ground. So when Moondog’s agent, who is played by a tangy Jonah Hill, remarks that one of the best things about being rich is getting away with awful things, it seems Korine’s way of saying that, even though the film’s slackerish so-it-goes ethos blares, we’re not meant to condone this behavior so much as sort of kind of admire its inconsideration and audacity. And admire it, in the most hesitant of ways, we do.
At the end of The Beach Bum, Moondog turns in the first draft of the poetic memoir he’s been working on throughout the movie to his publisher. Presumably, it encompasses his experiences from the beginning of the feature to the filing. Eventually, he manages to win a Pulitzer for the book — the victory marked, at the awards ceremony, with a speech extolling the virtues of his penis. Then, at a pier-side celebration with his friends, during which Moondog both puts on a firework show and shows off the inheritance money he’s gotten post-death-in-the-family, an accidental explosion leaves seared dollar bills floating in the air like post-volcano-eruption ash.
Guests are freaked out — just as any sensible person would be. But Moondog gleefully grins amidst the mayhem. To him, life is something of a sitcom — and if you aren’t laughing and laughing, and treating every mishap like a gag sequence, then how do you expect to make it through the rest of your life and not be totally tuckered out by the time you take your last breath? You have to commend the way he, in the face of such serious matters as winning literary awards and surviving possibly deadly incidents, can beam with such gusto. And say stuff like “I’m quite certain the world is conspiring to make me happy” and get us to believe it. A