Film Review: “The Beach Bum” — Purposefully Boneheaded

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.

Matthew McConnaughy is “The Beach Bum.”

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.


  1. Tim Jackson on April 12, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    Not Beach Bum — Beach Balm

    Anarchy reigns in the Sunshine State. It also sits at the heart of the artistic sensibility of director Harmony Korine, whose first film, Gummo, sent me crawling for a stiff drink. The film’s disconnected narrative featuring colorful misfits was disturbingly surreal.That was 22 years ago. At 46, Korine has turned hedonism and chaos into a personal vision that continues to fly in the face of convention. His latest indulgence is The Beach Bum. It stars a gonzo Matthew McConaughey as Moondog, who is writing a book called – what else – The Beach Bum. Moondog is a writer whose life is a series of random catastrophes yet he is continuously blessed by good fortune. He is married to a gorgeous woman (Isla Fisher) of substantial means. He drinks, carouses, womanizes, and parties endlessly, puffing on vast quantities of weed and breaking the law wit indiscretion. Oblivious to defeat, he regularly turns his lemons into lemonade. He is a middle-aged barefoot boy, a devil without a care. Women of all sizes, colors, and states of undress gyrate in and out of Moondog’s life.

    And Moondog suffers no consequences. His wife thinks he is a genius, though she is having an affair with Moondog’s drug dealer, Lingerie (Snoop Dog). Typical of Korine’s wicked sense of the absurd: Jimmy Buffet and Snoop Dog write a song together — about Moondog! — on Lingerie’s party yacht. Fueled by booze and weed, Moondog lugs around a manual typewriter that he pecks at regularly. His writing brings him enormous wealth, but money means nothing to Moondog — other than providing a better place to party. Freedom is everything. It is an ethos that may be shared by the director, given that, with films such as Julien Donkey Boy, Mr. Lonely, and the brilliantly subversive teen comedy, Spring Breakers, he has become a millionaire many times over.

    Beach Bum’s hysterically debauched world view rejects the conventions of commercial narrative. Even Grindhouse films, in the heyday of Times Square “nudies,” skirted censorship rules by providing a ‘moral lesson.’ A statement that prefaced a 1969 film called Sex Killer reads:

    A complex moral standard sometimes causes its own rejects. Bans to booze, hypocrisies on sex are overthrown by some and they turn on the same society that spawned them. This is the story of a young man frustrated by all – an insight into similar cases all over the United States. See this picture. See what happened in one city.

    No message is provided (or required) in Korine’s film. Responsibilities are non-existent.Despite one very brief stay in a rehab facility, from which Moondog escapes with his pal Flicker (Zac Effron), he is once again on his way — drinking, stealing, smoking, and partying. No one appears to hunt him down. Beach Bum leaps from one hedonistic revel to the next. No epiphany arrives — no lessons are learned. There is barely a story arc, but this is consistent with Korine’s filmmaking. He makes his movies as if to say ‘I don’t have to play the game and I’m still going to make myself piles of money.’

    Fortunately, his cinematic infractions are also outrageously funny. Welcome to the world of both Moondog and Harmony Korine. When you consider the real world crimes and wealth of our Commander in Chief, all of this may not be such a stretch after all.

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