Written and directed by: Harmony Korine
Do you ever read negative reviews and feel that the critic is confusing their dislike for a genre with their dislike for an individual work? That’s seemingly what happened when there was backlash against 2017’s mother! and it’s perhaps what I’m guilty of when reviewing action movies. Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum seems to have been the latest casualty of this kind of thinking. The Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus reads: “The role of a lifetime for Matthew McConaughey, The Beach Bum is set apart by Harmony Korine’s distinctive style, but that isn’t always enough to offset the unfocused story.”
This seemingly negative position is a strange one. Having seen the trailer for The Beach Bum I went into the movie expecting just that; a project focused more on silliness and aesthetic than on a plot. For me, therefore, the question is not the film’s approach, but what it gets out of it.
The Beach Bum is the story of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a middle-aged party animal of the Florida Keys, highly reminiscent of The Big Lebowski’s “The Dude.” Early on we are told that Moondog is a poet, but are not set up to take this title seriously: his poem, when we first hear it at least, comes across as absurdly simple and crude.
We subsequently discover Moondog is married to a wealthy Miami woman named Minnie (Isla Fisher) and that their 22-year-old daughter Heather (Stefania Levine Owen) is set to be married. In this first act of story we are introduced to Moondog’s comedic, playful and sometimes unpleasant and destructive behaviour. We are presented with a film that seems destined to be plotless. It is an enjoyable, crude, yet aesthetically masterful work, and the only question is whether it can sustain itself for an hour-and-a-half of run time.
At the end of this act, Korine establishes that his is a work of narrative innovation and not mere stoner comedy, when he throws in a tragic plot twist. Viewers are temporarily left to wonder whether The Beach Bum is the movie they thought it was. Will it in fact be a heartfelt drama in which its star learns a lesson?
Without spoiling too much, the answer is no. And I suppose this could explain the Rotten Tomatoes line of critique. The Beach Bum teases audiences with the prospect that it aspires to offer a conventional narrative, and when it ultimately doesn’t, it’s understandable that some viewers can experience this as narrative failure. But The Beach Bum’s lack of traditional narrative is in fact a meaningful choice, consistent with the film’s aim. Absurd as the proposal seems, The Beach Bum is not the tale of a flawed character that exists to lampoon him or teach him a lesson. Rather, it seeks to celebrate the teachings he has to offer.
The word morality has two meanings: or at least one-and-a-half. I learned this in a college political science seminar when one of my classmates repeatedly pointed out that we were failing to consider “Morality” in our analyses. I was confused by his arguments, since of course my classmates and I were making statements about right and wrong. It was only at the end of the semester that one of my other classmates finally pointed out that he was using “morality” as a dog-whistle to refer to “Christian values.” Then I realized what was going on. Morality, in short, can mean analysis of right and wrong, but it can also refer to a pre-determined (religious) ideology: one that is so rigid in its sense of right and wrong, that it no longer engages with the question of what right and wrong really mean.
In The Beach Bum Moondog does not always act “morally” in the first sense of the word: some of his behaviour is particularly egregious. But what Korine challenges us to observe about his character is that he is primarily criticized for his Moral failures in the second sense of the word. No one asks Moondog to give up his reckless life of partying for the betterment of humanity: they simply want him to be a well-behaved man of wealth. Through his refusal to follow a normal plot trajectory and grow as a human, Moondog exposes the emptiness of the Moral demands placed on him. And through his heartfelt, albeit hedonistic relationships, he shows that he has a moral compass (in the first sense of the word) of his own.
This is not to say The Beach Bum is a perfect movie. Its second half is undoubtedly slower than the first, it could have done without the octopus scene, and one of its scenes could have been less male-gaze-oriented. Ultimately, however, it is a notable work in that it manages to both be a strong-crude comedy while also pulling off a unique kind of storytelling with a unique message. Maybe the film was the product of what A.A. Dowd calls “improvised festivity,” but that only adds to its being a celebration of communal relaxation.