All viewers need to know before going into “The Beach Bum” is that it’s an R-rated comedy starring Matthew McConaughey as a stoner poet who attempts to write the next great American novel. It wouldn’t hurt to know that it’s written and directed by Harmony Korine, or maybe it would, depending on how fondly you remember his “Spring Breakers.” It wouldn’t hurt to know why the infamous Miami Moondog (McConaughey) writes his magnum opus in the first place, but the movie surrounding him isn’t concerned with that as much as it is with lionizing him as a hero and provoking us with behavior that’s freed from the dark clouds of ambition, expectation and self-criticism.
In a way, these are compelling aspects to find in characters on screen these days. They’re signs of youth that can be found all over “Broad City,” which just wrapped up its final season on Comedy Central. That, however, is different because Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer gave their characters funny lines in plot-driven situations while exploring that lack of ambition. Here, Korine’s unfocused narrative is content to just coast along with montage after montage and musical sequences here and there. Nearly every scene could be edited down at the end by cutting out characters howling over something that they obviously find funny, but isn’t necessarily set up for the viewer’s enjoyment. This is one of those movies that confuses sleaze and raunchy behavior with being provocative and hysterical.
I will say the characters themselves are very well-conceived materials that could’ve been mined for comic gold. Isla Fisher brings what she can to the underwritten part of Moondog’s wife, Jonah Hill shows up trying really hard as his guru agent and Snoop Dogg makes a big stretch for the role of his best friend, Lingerie, an R&B singer and pot supplier. They, along with Jimmy Buffett and Bertie Higgins, are a joy to spend time with, but it’s Zac Efron’s vape god and Martin Lawrence’s dolphin expert that give Moondog something to work with, energizing the movie as a whole. Unfortunately, viewers must sit through half its running time before being graced by their presence.
Flicker (Efron) is a pyromaniac who helps Moondog escape rehab. He’s rocking bottle-blonde hair and a panini beard with ultra-wide jeans, a look that’s been out of style since before he was even admitted. The nihilist livewire has a penchant for good times and bad behavior. So does Captain Wack (Lawrence), an old chum and alleged Vietnam veteran who makes a living off dolphin watchers, even though he can’t distinguish them from killer sharks. Seeing Lawrence’s return to screen in brash physical comedy mode for a role that so easily could’ve come from his own “Martin” series on HBO is a real treat for fans of the ‘90s stand-up legend.
Moondog, Flicker and Captain Wack are some of the most original and uniquely inspired characters I’ve seen in recent memory, and they complement the actors who portray them immensely. It’s a shame the latter two weren’t more central to the story and given more of an arc. McConaughey is spot-on as Moondog with a persona inspired by his own. It’s probably his best outing since “Dallas Buyers Club” brought us to peak McConaissance. Perhaps there is also some of Korine in Moondog given that the director of a film titled “Trash Humpers” — and other works cherished by freaks everywhere — is also an outsider who plays by his own rules.
In the end, “The Beach Bum” doesn’t feel contemplated or accomplished, much like a party you’ve been to a million times with the same people doing the same things over and over. Korine might’ve let you in on an interesting conversation with someone you didn’t know, but the whole ordeal has left your memory sooner than you can recollect it. Here’s to hoping a movie headlined by the too-good-to-be-true characters that are Moondog, Flicker and Captain Wack is on its way.
Edited by Joe Cross | firstname.lastname@example.org