The McConaissance may have climaxed with a 2014 Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, but we’ve only now reached peak Matthew McConaughey, courtesy of The Beach Bum.
An irresistible ode to checking out and tuning in to the mood of the evening, the lull of the ocean, and the sway of the universe—and, just as crucially, one’s hedonistic inner wavelength—Gummo and Spring Breakers auteur Harmony Korine’s comedy (in theaters March 29) is the ideal stoner-movie vehicle for McConaughey’s blissfully chill persona, which here finds its ultimate form via a story that intuitively knows how to go with the flow. It’s a film, and performance, to make you, like, totally euphoric, man.
With long, stringy blonde hair, a scraggly goatee, flip-up sunglasses, a fanny pack and a collection of loud graphically-designed outfits (made for both genders), his Moondog is a higher class of “bottom feeder,” coasting his way through South Florida without a care in the world save for his free-flowing desire to locate the next bong hit, Pabst Blue Ribbon, beautiful woman, and unexpected adventure. With a giddy twinkle in his eye and laughter and barks emanating from the corner of his mouth—the one not holding a joint—McConaughey inhabits his protagonist with an artlessness that’s so full-bodied, and so natural, that it’s easy to forget the two aren’t one and the same. Constantly inebriated and yet rarely out of control—in large part because his gift is embracing chaos in a warm hug—Moondog is the role McConaughey was born to play. One moment quoting D.H. Lawrence, the next crassly expounding on the “off-the-charts fucking medicinal quality” of a crotch massage, he’s a sloshed Dionysus in a Hawaiian shirt.
As it turns out, Moondog is a once-famous poet now living an independent life while still married to Minnie (Isla Fisher, charmingly uninhibited), a wealthy sugar momma who funds her spouse’s escapades because she accepts that his spirit can’t be tamed (including when it comes to fidelity). That open-mindedness works both ways, as Minnie is involved with famous R&B star Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). It’s an affair she correctly assumes Moondog will tolerate, both because Moondog is the opposite of possessive and judgmental, and also because she and her husband remain soulmates—a fact confirmed when Moondog returns to their estate for their daughter Heather’s (Stefania LaVie Owen) wedding, and promptly dons his wife’s fluffy white robe and goes down on her as she gets an outdoor pedicure and, later, stands looking at the ocean.
Tragedy soon intrudes on Moondog’s 24-hour party, which takes place in whatever venue he happens to be frequenting at a given moment—be it a beachside bar, his lavish houseboat, or a concert stage alongside Jimmy Buffet (appearing as himself). The Beach Bum is a shaggy-dog story in the truest sense of the term, with Korine crafting it as a series of rambling episodes that echo the swirling, heady, digressive nature of a marathon bender. That’s also true of certain montage-y scenes that are edited in a fragmentary fashion so that the past, present and future become intertwined, thereby further conveying a sense of harmony amidst bedlam.
Especially in light of 2019’s all-toxic-news-all-the-time state of the union, The Beach Bum’s dogged optimism is intoxicating, and epitomized by a close-up of Moondog walking down a nighttime road, his face chuckling in delight as fuzzy, glowing streetlamps stretch into the distance and similarly hazy headlights zoom by. Moondog is a sensualist who exists in the moment, and his perpetual pursuit of pleasure functions as his personal nirvana. McConaughey makes being stoned, ecstatic and satisfied look easy—a significant feat, considering that Moondog borders on a parody of the actor’s famous Dazed and Confused catchphrase: “All right, all right, all right.”
Korine plays off McConaughey’s history here, even if he gives that inevitable line not to Moondog but, instead, to Martin Lawrence, who’s rarely been funnier than he is as Captain Wack, a tour boat operator with a cocaine-addicted parrot and an obsession with dolphins. Captain Wack is merely one of The Beach Bum’s many lovable kooks, who also count among their ranks Nawlins-accented literary agent Lewis (Jonah Hill) and Christian rock-loving rehab patient Flicker (Zac Efron). Wherever he goes, Moondog meets likeminded crazies fixated on the next high, whether it’s incited by a toke off a baseball bat-sized spliff that can magically cure glaucoma, an impromptu “field trip” with homeless folks, or a flight from justice that involves robbing a wheelchair-bound citizen and then partying until dawn with gorgeous ladies—or, in the case of Flicker and Lewis, transgender knockouts.
Incidents and individuals are introduced, disappear and then rematerialize at random in The Beach Bum, as Moondog endeavors to snatch joy at every opportunity while simultaneously completing his long-awaited follow-up book of poetry. That narrative impetus is merely the obligatory structural backbone for a film that has no interest in traditional character development. On the contrary, Korine’s latest portrait of colorful outcasts operating outside the boundaries of normal society has only celebration on its mind. Like another cinematic icon more interested in drinking and hanging out than becoming a “responsible” adult, Moondog abides.
By eschewing pat moralizing, The Beach Bum exudes Korine’s familiar brand of idiosyncratic rebelliousness, and as with his prior Spring Breakers, it lavishes love upon his Florida milieu. Korine showers as much adoration on run-down dive bars and shadowy alleyways as he does on glitzy speedboats and opulent mansions. And cinematographer Benoît Debie—fresh off his superb work on Gaspar Noé’s Climax—routinely situates the action in radiant, enveloping magic-hour hues. From the gorgeous contrast of McConaughey’s bright yellow jacket and the sumptuous blue sea, to the sight of the star banging away at his typewriter in fading-sun silhouette, The Beach Bum is a work of inviting visual splendor, its every composition perfectly calibrated to express, and enhance, its hero’s stress-free ethos.
“I just want to have a good time,” Moondog says toward the conclusion of his shambolic saga, thereby encapsulating everything he, and the film, stands for. It may not sound profound, yet spend enough time in his endearingly exultant company, and you’re liable to not only get a contact buzz, but to catch wind of his, and The Beach Bum’s, essential message: when you’re totally yourself, you’re totally free—and thus, totally content.