“I’m a reverse paranoid. I believe the world is conspiring to make me happy.”
– Moondog, The Beach Bum
This review contains full spoilers for The Beach Bum.
That a new Harmony Korine movie should be morally disagreeable, juvenile and more than occasionally offensive is no surprise. That it should it be joyfully wise, subversively kind and the single most anti-materialistic work of a moment in time steeped in bourgeois socialism is actually very surprising, and The Beach Bum is perhaps one of the most wonderfully and uniquely meaningful movies of the moment, which is also a profound surprise.
In an era when ‘mediocre white men’ are the cause of all our problems, Korine dared to make a paean to one. I’ll admit, for the first hour or so I just wasn’t sure what Korine was doing with this movie; he begins by showing us the daily life of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) a booze-soaked, drug-addled, golden-skinned partyboy poet who just wanders from scenario to scenario in the Florida Keys. He’s finding stray kittens or stumbling on stage with Jimmy Buffet, he’s adored by everyone he meets and he behaves in a louche, crude way that went out of style in the last century. At first it seems like Moondog might be indigent, but Korine slowly reveals that he actually has some money, and eventually the source of that money is revealed – he’s married to a hyper-wealthy sexpot in Miami, Minnie (Isla Fisher). She gets in touch with Moondog to remind him that their daughter is getting married, and that his presence on the mainland is requested.
So Moondog hops into his broken down speedboat and, beer in hand, cruises his way towards destiny. To avoid summarizing all of the episodically weird shit that goes down, Moondog goes to the wedding, acts a fool, everybody is okay that he acts a fool, he realizes his wife is sleeping with his best friend, R&B singer Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), sort of gets over it, drunk drives with his wife and gets into a terrible car accident that kills her.
This is the moment that defines The Beach Bum. Moondog learns that Minnie has left him nothing… unless he finishes the novel he’s been talking about for years. Suddenly destitute, he ends up arrested and thrown into rehab (by a judge who tells us how much she loves Moondog’s poetry, none of which seems good or, more tellingly, seems to actually be his own – he steals from better poets).
Now it’s a rehab movie! I get this narrative, it makes sense. All of that difficulty that Moondog presented for everyone, that was all setting the stage for his recovery and learning and becoming a better man. This, I thought, seems weird for Harmony Korine, but the former enfant terrible is now a middle aged man; age and wisdom changes you and the art you make.
As someone in recovery I groaned at this turn of events. I’ve seen all these stories, and they always suck. It’s really hard to tell a good recovery story – the best parts are always what happens before bottom. So imagine my absolute delight when Moondog meets Flicker (Zac Efron), a scumbag with a beard pattern Korine described as being inspired by a panini press, and they break out and pick up their drinking, drugging and carousing (including with a trans woman whose reveal is textually funny and also deeply problematic and one of the aspects of this movie sure to infuriate people). Moondog has learned nothing, and is in fact seemingly incapable of learning anything.
Once that turn of events happened I began to understand what Korine was doing here. This is a movie about crazy wisdom, about a holy fool. Moondog has the dancing energy of a sufi, the taboo-shattering style of the Tibetan nyönpa, the ability to peel back the layers of social artifice of divine Christian madmen like Saint Simeon. By living precisely in the moment – Moondog never, ever worries about what’s beyond his next step forward – and by eschewing all that is traditionally good and right the holy fool explodes our views of the world; he is a living zen koan, which exists not so much to be solved as it does to forcibly rearrange our perspective from within.
This is Harmony Korine, though, he of Gummo and Kids, so he’s not going to just make a movie about a holy fool. He’s also going to tweak us along the way, which is what we would expect a holy fool himself to do. He plays with our expectations all along – not just the rehab sequence but also by setting up moments for deep conflict – between Moondog and his daughter, who he treats abysmally, and between Moondog and Lingerie, who had been secretly sleeping with Minnie – and then not so much deflating them as just moving past them. “Let that shit go” is a common Buddha-inspired modern self-help quote, and Moondog exemplifies it.
There’s something undeniably Lebowski-esque about Moondog, but I think that Korine actually takes the character farther than the Coens took theirs. After all, part of the joke about The Big Lebowski is that The Dude – so chill, so stoned – is actually one of the most uptight characters in the whole film. Lebowski plays like a satire of Zen, which we use as a word meaning relaxed or calm but whose priests are famously some of the most highly irritated and difficult dudes in the whole of Buddhism. Zen priests will hit you with a bamboo stick if your posture goes bad in meditation, and the history of Zen is riddled with priests and teachers who just act like absolute dickheads to their students all the time.
No, Moondog is the reality of what the popular perception of the Dude is, for good and ill. And where the Dude is on a quest for something material, Moondog is on the exact opposite quest. He is shedding everything that is holding him down, from family to friends to respect to even his gender (he ends the movie dressed like a woman, thinking this is helping him hide out from the authorities. He’s less convincing than Bugs Bunny).
I wasn’t sure that I had this whole read correct as I watched the film. That’s an exciting feeling for someone whose brain works the way mine does – I’m usually analyzing a movie from frame one, not on purpose but just because that’s how shit works in my head. So I was analyzing the movie and it kept slipping out of my grasp, wriggling like a fish and defying my expectations. It wasn’t until we got to the very end – Moondog gets the money from Minnie’s will, has the hundreds of millions of dollars delivered in cash, and then burns it in a Viking funeral of materialism as he laughs and pets a kitten – that I truly understood what Korine was doing.
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