This piece originally ran as part of SXSW 2019 coverage.
Maybe you remember what happened to Matthew McConaughey back in 1999. The actor had graduated to Hollywood A-list status by this point; he’d also developed a deserved reputation for enjoying a good time off the set. So the cops get a call from his neighbors, complaining about a loud ruckus-in-progress happening at our man’s home. Long story short, they arrive to find the movie star possibly under the influence of a substance or three, extremely naked and enthusiastically playing the bongos. It’s become a key part of his legacy, the Rosetta stone(r) of McConaugh-lore that’s contributed to the “Awright x 3” guy we know and love. Better yet, flashes of that au naturel hedonistic hippie/walking Zen-koan persona began showing up in some of his McConaughnaissance performances — a glint in the eye here, an oft-kilter line reading there, the occasional chest-beating mantra. You started to look forward to catching those offbeat, the-wild-man-cometh notes embedded in the melodies.
Now, what if we told you that you could see a whole movie of that? Not a muted bongo beat popping up in the background every so often, but a virtual orchestra of completely unhinged, dick-out, Willie Bobo-level solos? Welcome to The Beach Bum.
A collaboration between McConaughey and filmmaker/former enfant terrible Harmony Korine, this portrait of a dissolute poet pissin’ away the days in Margaritaville and Miami is a match made in heaven, if by “heaven” you mean the sleazier, gaudier corners of the Sunshine State. Both artists individually understand the power of tapping into the unfiltered id; the idea of pairing them together, then giving them a neon-pink playground, a book of matches and a lot of flammable Bacardi 151, makes you picture a certain type of gonzoness in motion. And somehow, The Beach Bum is even nuttier, less logical, more visually beautiful and down-in-the-gutter uglier than the film you just imagined from that description. At one point, a servant walks into gauche mansion with a PBR can placed delicately on a gleaming silver platter. That’s the movie’s entire vulgarity-chic mojo summed up in one shot. Jeff Koons should be gnashing his teeth in envy.
At the center of it all is a man of letters named Moondog. Once upon a time, he was a minor literary sensation, and his books of poetry, blessed with titles like Key Zest, made him the toast of the Conch Republic. Now, he’s mostly devoted his life to dousing his muse in cold beer and/or hotboxing her, depending on which way the wind blows. Eventually, Moondog is summoned back to Miami by his extremely rich wife Minnie (Isla Fisher, up for anything); their daughter is getting married and maybe Dad could get his drunk ass back home? In between getting shitfaced and fucking random barflies in beachside burger stands, he makes it back in time to give the bride away. Then tragedy strikes. And unless Moondog finally publishes his permanently procrastinated new collection of verse, all of that wealth he’s been living off is gone.
That’s the “plot.” The Beach Bum is not about plot. It’s about having the good taste to live like trash, or maybe the bad taste to live really well and NGAF. (“The best thing about being rich,” one character says, “is that you can be horrible to people and they have to take it.” This should be the tagline for every single program on Fox News.) It’s about giving McConaughey the space to really cut loose, and we do mean loose — the actor is constantly engaging in some sort of funky, rubber-limbed dancing, or faux-drunkenly breezing through his scenes, or passed out ‘n’ drooling. It’s a 360-degree, totally committed take on living on the periphery of madness while ordering more Mojitos. You can practically smell his character’s post-binge musk wafting from the screen.
It’s about pairing him with side players that are on their own fucked-up wavelength: Jonah Hill doing a Foghorn Leghorn-style Southern accent and flirting with drag queens; Martin Lawrence (!) as a dolphin-loving tour guide; Zac Efron as a rehab-facility resident whose hairdo was apparently inspired by a panini; Jimmy Buffett as Jimmy Buffett; Snoop Dogg as a character who deserves to have his own buddy comedy with McConaughey. It’s about staging a yacht-rock apocalypse. And it’s about setting up a situation, turning on the camera and seeing what happens. Just keep filmin’.
Mostly, though, The Beach Bum seems to be about reacting to a moment of national/social/spiritual crisis by treating hedonism as a holy sacrament. It’s a spiritual sequel to Spring Breakers in its own warped way, although both films are clearly movies of their particular moment. Korine’s 2012 masterpiece was announcement that the revolution was arriving, and it would be clad in balaclavas and bikinis; Bum suggests that we’re more than a bit fucked right now and that you may as well protest by having a good time. “Fun is the gun,” Moondog says, and the filmmaker wants to match the spirit of American malaise with his own brand of anarchy in the USA. If anyone was going to make the great ripping-bong-hits-while-Rome-burns movie of right now, it would be Korine. Both the director and his star have given us an epic of ridiculousness that channels guffaws all the way to another Happy Hour and then the graveyard. It climaxes with fireworks, a Viking’s funeral and a glorious “fuck you” to the ethos that currently governs the ruling class. It’s the only way the movie — and Western Civilization — could end.