It’s been a minute since the McConaissance came around and brought us excellent Matthew McConaughey movies like The Lincoln Lawyer, Dallas Buyers Club and Mud, and in the years since we’ve seen something of a McContraction, with stinkers like The Sea of Trees, Gold, The Dark Tower, and this year’s Serenity slinking in and out of theaters faster than one could drawl, “All right, all right, all right.” Does The Beach Bum, McConaughey’s new collaboration with indie maverick filmmaker Harmony Korine, signal the return of the former or the continuation of the latter? It’s hard to say.
One thing is for sure though: McConaughey leaves it all on the field in the movie, a languid comedy about a man named Moondog whose one-time fame as a writer and whose wife’s vast fortune have allowed him to drift through life on a seemingly never-ending, easygoing stream of drugs, sex, partying, and general misbehavior. McConaughey fully inhabits the role of Moondog in a laconic, unhurried way that plays easily off his own real-life image, and he is fearless in immersing himself so totally in Moondog’s persona that it’s hard to dislike the character even though he can be completely irritating.
The author of several acclaimed works of poetry, Moondog has become pretty much a burnout, happy to glide through each day on his own schedule and according to his own whims. His wife Minnie (a playfully endearing Isla Fisher) is patient with him because she believes he is a literary genius, even though she has her own long-term affair going with their friend, rap star Lingerie (a genuinely good Snoop Dogg). Not that Moondog is in any position to judge his wife: He is late to his daughter’s wedding because he’s banging a woman he just met over a grill in the back of the bar where he hangs out.
Still, everyone seems okay with the arrangement: a perpetually stoned or sozzled Moondog splits his time between a little beach shack in Key West and the family’s palatial waterfront mansion in Miami. That’s until a major life-changing incident leaves Moondog cut off from any more money, stuck in a potential 12-month rehab stint and expected to change his ways and finally write the great novel that everyone–including his deep-Southern-fried agent Jonah Hill–still seems to think he has in him.
This is the point in the movie where the main character is supposed to grow and change, but this is a film by Harmony Korine, who doesn’t like to embrace the standard tropes of cinematic storytelling in the movies he’s written and/or directed, including Kids, Julien Donkey-Boy and Trash Humpers. While The Beach Bum moves him further into a realm of slightly more accessible filmmaking that he began experimenting with in 2012’s Spring Breakers, he’s not about to embrace traditional narrative or character arcs. Moondog is a character who will never turn a blind eye for long toward the hedonistic or vaguely self-destructive.
Despite a string of comically surreal adventures with colorful characters played by the likes of Zac Efron and, in one unforgettable sequence, a long-absent-from-the screen Martin Lawrence as an ill-fated dolphin boat guide, Moondog and the film Korine has built around him eventually begin to test one’s patience. You have to accept the movie’s somewhat subversive idea that it’s okay to be an unemployed middle-aged man who just doesn’t give a shit about anything except whatever craving he wants to satisfy that moment. But the deck is still stacked in Moondog’s favor for much of the movie’s length: There’s only one real moment where it feels like his careless existence could put him in harm’s way.
If you don’t buy into that, then all of McConaughey’s considerable charm (and he works very hard to keep Moondog empathetic even when he’s doing some pretty obnoxious things) won’t keep The Beach Bum from starting to feel repetitive and pointless as it ambles toward its ambiguous conclusion. Fortunately Korine keeps the pacing light and the music jaunty while he and cinematographer Benoit Debie capture both the beauty and druggy haze of Florida’s Keys culture. Your mileage may vary when it comes to embracing Moondog and his lifestyle. McConaughey and his director have somehow made life as a sandy, sloshed stoner both fun and exhausting at the same time.
The Beach Bum is out in theaters Friday, March 29.