How much does an audience let slide for the sake of someone’s credibility as an independent filmmaker? For the complaints that can be made about a bad or a weird feature, there’s a bit of leeway if it’s an independent film. Some indie films might start off strange or slow or nonsensical, but because these films have a reputation of having unique styles and stories, patience is awarded to see how everything plays out. Sometimes that yields rewards, like Barry Jenkins turning the life of a gay black man into a dreamlike three-act play, or Ari Aster merging family melodrama with a demonic ghost story. Then you also have Harmony Korine filming Matthew McConaughey’s midlife crises, and there’s only so much of one’s time to be given before one asks, “Why?”
The Beach Bum could be easily mistaken as a documentary of the Oscar-winner’s vacation time as its main character, Moondog, feels like what we imagine McConaughey’s final form being: a long-haired, bumbling, beer-swilling, weed-smoking wanderer in Key West. Moondog thinks himself a poet as he bar hops and spits lines of his debauchery before sailing with topless women and toking up some more. How does he do all this? A filthy rich wife (Isla Fisher) who enjoys Moondog’s freestyle poetry as much as she enjoys his fellatio. Moondog is trying to write and publish his grand novel and, not one for a typical writing desk, scours the sandy paradise of Florida for inspiration and more weed. His travels lead him to make friends, ranging from a violent Christian bro (Zac Efron) to a cocaine-addled dolphin sight-seer (Martin Lawrence) to Snoop Dogg, who keeps getting called Lingerie for some reason, to Jimmy Buffett, who’s just called Jimmy Buffett.
To call The Beach Bum “aimless” would be like calling Florida “moderately warm.” Writer/director Korine is no stranger to making freewheeling character studies (Gummo, Trash Humpers), but The Beach Bum is a more egregious failure since he doesn’t make use of the talents. He’s got the most prestigious and interesting cast of his career, yet all he does is make them awkwardly dance around to songs on the bar jukebox while listening to McConaughey recite words about his favorite sex stories. Even the gorgeous cinematography of Benoit Debie (Enter the Void, Climax) is wasted — on McConaughey humping a woman in a kitchen and spanking her with a spatula. Even the solid soundtrack, including cuts from The Cure and Van Morrison, feels cheapened by all the debauchery. And that’s not to say debauchery itself makes the movie bad, as the movie’s highlights involve Moondog doing something stupid. His wild night with Efron’s character is a peak due to the epic douchbaggery of Efron’s performance (which boasts being in a Creed cover band as a life highlight). There’s also his misguided search for dolphins with Lawrence that gets so crazy that it actually warrants excitement for Bad Boys III. But all of the wackiness, weed and naked women can’t distract from a vacuous script that never goes anywhere. It’s a borderline-offensive fantasy that never earns the spoils it flaunts.
It certainly doesn’t warrant the annoying attitudes of the actors. It’s one thing to joke and imagine McConaughey swimming in Scrooge McDuck-levels of subpar beer and the sticky icky, but seeing it come to fruition gets boring fast. McConaughey’s natural charisma is only validated when there’s an arc for his character to complete, and Moondog is the flimsiest facade he’s had to work with. Though he has occasional bits of good comedic timing, McConaughey gives no reason for us to care about Moondog’s journey and moseys along the movie’s 95 minutes.
Fisher celebrates her second consecutive year wasted in bro-centric comedies, but at least she’s having more fun here than playing second-fiddle to Ed Helms in last year’s Tag. The Beach Bum isn’t totally bereft of entertaining characters, in fact its supporting characters are more deserving to lead the movie than Moondog does. Efron in particular has the funniest and most interesting character as a muscular, bro-tastic Christian who uses his faith as an excuse to steal from people and sleep with anyone under the sun. With his inspired haircut and madcap energy, Efron is desperate to break free of the tepid script and find his movie to lead. Lawrence, on the other hand, is still playing type as the wacky comedic relief but at least he still knows how to do it well, especially in an R-rated format. Even Snoop Dogg, given no other motivation other than “be Snoop Dogg,” is constantly entertaining.
When a movie celebrates its wealth by serving Pabst Blue Ribbon on a silver platter, it’s hard not to groan in annoyance. For such a lazy and rudderless endeavor, The Beach Bum is infuriating in its stupid flaunting of unearned success. Korine has made glossy but groan-worthy garbage before — Spring Breakers was nothing more than a high-budget Skrillex music video — but it’s more appalling here due to mishandling of talent and a pointless story. It could be Korine is just trying to see what he can get away with on his indie cred alone, but there’s only so much ganja he can blow into a camera before any sense of artistic effort burns out.