It turns out that Spring Break never ended after all, at least not for Moondog. Key West’s answer to The Dude, the sun-baked poet played with THC-infused gusto by Matthew McConaughey is the life of every party and the biggest personality in any room he walks into. He’s so entertaining, in fact, that it takes nearly the entirety of “The Beach Bum” to fully absorb how little else there is to the film once the initial high of basking in Moondog’s perma-stoned glory wears off.
Comparisons to Korine’s last protagonist are unavoidable, so I won’t: Moondog is like a mellower version of James Franco’s Alien aged 15 hard-living years, not interested in guns or bling but equally stoked about weed and booze. “I’m a bottom-feeder, baby,” he tells his inexplicably understanding wife (Isla Fisher) after returning from his latest bender. “I gotta go low to get high.” His antics could provide meme fodder for years to come: Moondog carries around an adorable white cat he found by the water one day, rides around on a burnout barge dubbed Well Hung, and recites vaguely pornographic poetry onstage — all in one altered state or another.
All of which is to say that he’s most assuredly living his best life, at least until the aftermath of a car accident requires him to publish his next poetry collection lest he be cut off from his wife’s riches. Moondog goes to rehab, escapes, and starts wearing dresses in a half-hearted attempt to elude the authorities; though ostensibly serious — someone close to Moondog dies early on, and he has no real relationship with his just-married daughter — none of this seems to faze our intrepid poet. Like another McConaughey character, he just keeps L-I-V-I-N.
Though more conventional than the likes of “Trash Humpers” or “Gummo,” “The Beach Bum” maintains the anarchic sensibility that has defined Korine since he made a name for himself more than 20 years ago. Benoît Debie’s cinematography is as vivid and freewheeling as it was on “Spring Breakers” and “Enter the Void,” following Moondog from bar to beach to boat and back again as his low-key journey unfurls. McConaughey and Korine are clearly having fun here, with much of “The Beach Bum” appearing to have been improvised as the production wreaked havoc across an unsuspecting Florida.
Moondog isn’t alone, as his episodic adventures find him alongside a revolving cast of oddball characters: Jonah Hill is a literary agent with an acute southern twang, Zac Efron a Creed-loving addict in rehab who believes that Jesus has already paid for his sins so he can do whatever he wants, and Martin Lawrence a dolphin-tour captain whose blatantly unsafe practices lead to a close encounter with a different finned creature in the film’s most over-the-top sequence (which is saying a lot). Then there’s Snoop Dogg as, well, pretty much himself, only he’s named Lingerie and sleeping with Moondog’s wife.
You might think that would lead to some drama, but as all else in the film it mostly just reinforces Moondog’s status as the Chillest Dude Ever. Rather than confront Lingerie about the years-long affair, he bonds with him over his wife’s sexual prowess. That makes “The Beach Bum” a good time, but also prevents it from achieving more than surface-level joys — like a half-remembered house party, you emerge having enjoyed yourself but quickly forget the details of what went on as you move on with your life.
Like Moondog, Korine finds a vulgar poetry in his own self-indulgence. Those enduring their antics may be less amused. Everyone in his orbit are constantly telling Moondog he’s a genius, but Korine never shows us any real evidence of his literary gifts; the one poem he actually recites, about being happy when he looks at his own penis because he knows it has recently been inside the object of his desire, isn’t exactly Whitman. “The Beach Bum” is admirably committed to marching to the beat of its own drum, but a convincing demonstration of Moondog’s poetic abilities would have really tied the film together.
This is still McConaughey’s best performance since the McConnaisance peaked when he won an Oscar for “Dallas Buyers Club” the same night the first season of “True Detective” aired its penultimate episode, even if Moondog’s blissed-out vibe doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Though fun-loving and kind, his always-on shtick requires a certain amount of energy to be around and eventually grows tiresome. That’s Moondog, but it’s also “The Beach Bum.” The film shares the best and worst qualities of its hero: good for a laugh, sure, but after 90 minutes you’ll be more than ready to sober up and return to the mainland.
“The Beach Bum” world premiered at South by Southwest. NEON will release it in theaters on March 29.