There’s a certain structure to The Beach Bum that makes it feel bigger than it is, or more important at least. Moondog (a manically unhinged Matthew McConaughey) isn’t just drunkenly staggering from one celebrity playing an outlandish Floridian character to the next, he’s on some kind of quest for the forces of hedonism. It’s an undeniably beautiful film, albeit in a tacky kind of way. Sparkling blue sea, neon green margaritas, white lines, and truly awful fashion are constant ambience as we watch Moondog’s washed up writer grapple with sudden poverty and a need to write.
We’re introduced to him as he adopts a stray cat, carrying it from place to place as he flirts and smokes and reads poetry to crowded bars in a hawaiian-shirted parody of the beats. Snoop Dogg is one of his best friends, a slick drug dealer having an affair with Moon’s wife Minnie (Isla Fisher). His publisher is Jonah Hill, a sleazy piece of work with a Kentucky-fried accent and continuing his trend of casting Ex-Disney stars for big-boy roles, director Harmony Korrine taps Zac Efron to play the JNCO-clad pyromaniac son of a megachurch preacher. Jimmy Buffet appears playing himself on several occasions.
The film works best on the purely aesthetic level, where you can sit back and watch the chaos as things go off the rails and then claw their way back to a vague acid-fried sense of normalcy. Sure, subtextually one could argue that the film presents a critique of Moondog’s behaviour. His recklessness leads to embarrassment, injury, and death of those around him but it always feels fleeting, like it’s too caught up in the fun to ever really look inward. Maybe that’s the point, the film is a critique of the way that we’re so ready to ignore the awful behaviour of talented men because of their output. The last scene in the film is a display of truly nihilistic destruction and obscene opulence, but even then, looking through the lens of the past hour and a half, the coke-addicted parrots and the weed, Korrine’s been having so much fun with everything else that it because have to believe that one more act in the same vein is mean to be satirical.
Yet the movie remains an absolute blast to watch, every scene full of frenetic, free-wheeling energy. McConaughey’s performance is deeply physical as he lounges, dances, staggers, and fucks, his drawl drifting out lazily in a haze of weed smoke. The roster of side characters works to populate Moondog’s odyssey through Florida, adding levity and gravitas in equal measure. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of taking The Beach Bum too seriously. Korrine’s direction is much more interested in the look of a scene than it’s narrative structure, there’s a reason Moondog is a poet, not a writer. It’s the perfect film to put on in the background while you’re getting high with friends, and I mean that in the best way possible.