By Gerald Peary
If you’re the kind of person who coveted every word and wild-man gesture of inebriated Hunter S. Thompson, The Beach Bum could be your movie.
The Beach Bum, directed by Harmony Korine. Screening at Somerville Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, AMC Boston 19.
Part of the fun for geeky kids at the SXSW Film Festival each year is a spring-break vibe of anti-intellectualism in many of the feature narratives. You can’t get more purposefully boneheaded than Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, which had its world premiere this year in Austin.
A bum. That’s exactly what Korine’s titular hero is. A loopy wastrel, who commutes between Key West and Miami beach stoned in a motorboat. Moondog (Matthew McConnaughy) is The Big Lebowski’s The Dude — stringy hair, crazy shirts, Bermuda shorts — on a bad acid trip from which he’s never returned, and from which he doesn’t want to come back. As long as he’s got a bong to enjoy, a Pabst Blue Ribbon to gulp down, he’s happy as hell, complacent as hell, laughing away like a hyena. You get to see his pecker when Moondog boisterously pees on the ground, he is so delighted in his primal, uninhibited self.
Oh, and the babes. For Moondog, they’re everywhere: bare-breasted, sexually available, and blithely non-dimensional, as if #Me Too doesn’t exist. What a time capsule this movie is, to the days when Playboy reigned. Surely Hugh Hefner in his early 1960s heyday would have published a glossy spread on “The Girls of The Beach Bum.”
Moondog, a free soul in Key West, is married back in Miami Beach to a rich woman named Minnie (Isla Fisher), not that she wants him on a leash. She’s also bosomy and hedonist, having her own hot time with a rap artist named Lingerie (played to perfection by rap artist, Snoop Dogg). But when Moondog comes home on his boat, he and Minnie forget their on-the-side lovers and wide open marriage and rediscover each other. Moondog goes down on his wife while she’s having a manicure. Why not?
A plot? Moondog is home because his daughter is getting married. Considering her kooky, anarchic parents, Heather (a dull Stefania La Vie Owen) is improbably straight, and she’s walking down the aisle with a Republican stiff. Of course, Moondog disrupts the connubial ceremony to no avail. But later in the movie, his daughter comes to love and appreciate her impossible dad the way, I surmise, Harmony Korine also adores his protagonist. Just for being himself. Moondog doesn’t change one iota from the beginning of the film to the end. “I go high to go low” is his credo, and we’re supposed to admire him for being so unbending and unreformed, ever-ditsy and drunk and zonked.
Pray tell why? I ask. Moondog really is a supreme asshole. For adult me, spending 95 minutes in his infantile company was a grueling experience. But if you’re the person who coveted every word and wild-man gesture of inebriated Hunter S. Thompson, The Beach Bum could be your movie.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.