“He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man. He’s brilliant. I mean, you’ll never be great or brilliant. You’re dependable.”
Some movies can be summed up in one quote, and this is the one that captures the essence of “The Beach Bum.” Harmony Korine’s 2019 stoner comedy tells the story of a famous poet known as Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), who despite his obvious talent hasn’t published anything in years. He gets away with this because his wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) is willing to support him as he bums around the Florida Keys, living a life that Korine described in an interview as that of “a sensualist. Whatever feels good, he just acts on it. So he does good, and he does bad.”
That sensualistic lifestyle — with its endless waves of drugs, alcohol, sex and partying — seems to be a real-life reenactment of the spirit behind Moondog’s poetry, forgivable and perhaps even laudable because it is an artist merely practicing what he preaches. If we can honor a genius like Henry David Thoreau mooching off others so he could live in the wilderness and write his masterpiece novel, “Walden,” why not do the same thing for the charming, refreshingly self-aware Moondog?
Ah, but Moondog hasn’t actually written his “Walden” yet, and when Minnie unexpectedly dies, she stipulates in her will that he cannot touch any of her estate until he does so. The man who once lived as a beach bum to make an artistic statement (and because he had the luxury of being able to enjoy it) is now a real bum, and so the plot of “The Beach Bum” is set into motion.
It is unlike any other Harmony Korine film directed for the big screen, which is another way of saying that it is more like a traditional movie than anything else he has helmed. There is a conventional plot with a three-act structure, a mainstream soundtrack and few of the stylistic visual flourishes one associates with Korine’s filmmaking. Its goal isn’t to probe the fringes of American culture, but to glorify one of its most revered archetypes — the eccentric genius, as Moondog’s daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen) tells her disapproving husband (Joshua Ritter) in the aforementioned quote.
McConaughey, not surprisingly, rises to the challenge, creating in Moondog a version of his iconic “Dazed and Confused” character that will not be soon forgotten. Korine populates his film with other colorful personages including a pyromaniac called Flicker (Zac Efron), an R&B singer known as Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) and a dolphin tour guide named Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence). All of this adds up to a movie with some clever dialogue, genuine laughs and a tad of actual depth to its characterizations and themes.
Is it great Harmony Korine? No, but it’s pretty good Harmony Korine. “The Beach Bum” lacks the genius of “Julien Donkey-Boy,” his best film. If you want a story about a drug-addled literary genius embarking on misadventures, Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is more effective. Yet if you’re just looking for a fun stoner comedy that takes few risks and doesn’t leave a sour aftertaste, “The Beach Bum” works just fine.