Review: The Beach Bum (2019)

The Beach Bum is the latest film by Harmony Korine, perhaps the most detestable director working today. His works are largely exploitative and nihilistic, gratuitous in their depictions of women and following characters who seem to have no purpose in life.

This is my third encounter with Korine after Gummo and Spring Breakers – and, well, both of those grew on me after I initially had a strongly negative reaction. As sleazy as his works are, Korine has this odd ability to make them linger.

These three works all tackle nihilism but in different ways. In Gummo, he gives us a view into the world of the desperately poor, an observation of people who are given no sign that life can be anything more. Spring Breakers utilizes nihilism as a tool for violence, following a group of college girls who leave a wake of bodies while on vacation. If those two represent nihilism as a destructive force, The Beach Bum loops it back around to its most positive side – if life has no purpose, why not have fun with it?

The Beach Bum isn’t that naive – there’s an underlying sense of dread and giving up, people drifting without a focus. This film feels similarly unfocused, but in a way that suits the mood. This is a slice of life through the eyes of people who can get away with anything due to their undeserved riches.

What makes Korine such a compelling figure is how talented he is – he takes these detestable tales and gives them a truly impressive presentation. He’s like if John Waters had the visual mastery of Terrence Malick. His films carry this hypnagogic style, this feeling of drifting through the imagery.

So, where it’s easy to pass off Korine as merely exploitative, I think there’s more to what he’s doing. His film feels like a prime example of post-modernism – explicitly in its mixing of heightened visual language with low themes. Films about wanton debauchery don’t deserve to be shot so compellingly – yet Korine has proven time and time again that he can do so with ease.

The Beach Bum feels like the most accessible of his works, giving Matthew McConaughey a perfect role as he drifts between several figures – it’s like if Linklater’s Waking Life toured various forms of self-destruction in place of philosophy. Despite the context of what’s on screen, a lot of this film is strangely beautiful. Bright colors cover the screen, the thoughts of characters linger as the scene cuts to new shots. Some conversations occur over several cuts, the characters shifting places but their dialogue continuing as if no time has passed – it’s almost hypnotic, the way in which it plays with time.

The Beach Bum is excessively obtuse – your opinion of this film is going to be largely dependent on your tolerance for a narrative that goes nowhere, making statements that don’t add up to much. But if you’re less concerned with narrative cohesion and more drawn to the mixing of fine cinematography with vile excess, as I apparently must be, The Beach Bum is another good time. Where the overall picture might not add up to much, each individual sequence is strangely compelling – whether it be Zac Efron’s take as a completely misguided Christian youth while rocking panini-chops or Martin Lawrence as a woefully incompetent dolphin tour guide, there are several moments that are hard to forget.

God – when did I become such a big fan of Harmony Korine?

4 Stars Out of 5

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