In Harmony Korine’s surprisingly sweet stoner comedy The Beach Bum, Matthew McConaughey bleats like a sheep and rarely opens his eyes all the way. He plays Moondog, a sensualist writer who follows the world where it takes him – into bars, onto boats, after every next joint that will let him experience the world just a bit cooler.
Where drug-fuelled stories often rhyme with disaster and darkness, Korine’s take captures the blissful coming-up period, whimsically cackling along with every wondrous good vibe such a heightened state has to give. The Beach Bum is hazy and relaxed, never neurotic or cautious about the dangers of straying from the status quo.
This hedonistic mood is bolstered by a cast bursting with spontaneity, made up of heavyweight stars and non-actors alike. McConaughey is triumphant, at once stupid and sensitive in a role that has no shackles, that allows every primal impulse to become part of his story. He’s joined by Snoop Dogg as Lingerie, a thinly veiled proxy of an R&B singer, Isla Fisher as the glowing Minnie (Moondog’s wife), Jonah Hill as Moondog’s gleefully unhinged and theatrical agent, Lewis, and a pyromaniac drug rehab patient – that’s Zac Efron as Flicker. Every actor fills the shoes of someone so absurd they can seem like a dream, and however long their cameos, they add another coloured layer to Moondog’s unpredictable world.
The Beach Bum is a film of vignettes, of cartoonish coincidences that link arms and stroll down promenades together. It roams, and has the best time doing so. It’s refreshing to experience a film fuelled by its prohibited life supplies, that so rarely feels anything less than tremendous fun. Bad things happen, and there are sorrowful consequences, but the mood is rarely dampened. This is helped by a surprisingly gentle score from John Debney (whose 50+ credits span all genres), and free-flowing and vibrant work from Korine’s regular director of photography, Benoît Debie.
If comparisons must be drawn with Korine’s last mainstream movie, Spring Breakers, The Beach Bum feels like a calmer older sibling. Calm, perhaps, because it’s too high to realise what’s wrong, and could lose everything before anything calms down. But in Moondog’s love for his wife and his life, in the simple, determined ambition to “suck the nectar” of life’s greatest fruits, it’s hard to resist enjoying the trip just as long as he does.