We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
If Matthew McConaughey retired tomorrow, The Beach Bum would be the perfect end to his career. He plays Moondog, the poet laureate of Key West, a lovable miscreant with a penchant for weed, booze, and prostitutes. It’s who we have always suspected McConaughey to be in real life, ever since he was arrested for playing the bongos naked that one time, but has never quite been captured before on-screen. To put it another way: Take the creepy Wooderson from Dazed and Confused, McConaughey’s very first film role, send him to Florida, and wait 25 years. Moondog will emerge.
How much you enjoy The Beach Bum, the sun-spackled sixth feature from writer/director Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers) will likely depend on your tolerance for Moondog’s—or McConaughey’s—antics. To the locals, he is a legendary hedonist who sleeps with tourists, urinates in public, and manages to keep it together long enough to do a public reading every now and then, where he is showered with praise. But they don’t have to live with him. To his rich-girl wife (Isla Fisher), he is a creature from another dimension, whose refusal to play society’s games makes him attractive enough to be worth the trouble. His daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen) is the only real party pooper; when Moondog shows up late to her wedding and disrupts the ceremony by insulting her fiancé, she has the gall to complain.
Over the course of The Beach Bum’s 95 minutes, weed is smoked, drinks are drunk, and poems are composed. Believe it or not, there is a plot. Due to cosmic circumstances, Moondog is ejected from his house and cut loose from his wife’s fortune. The only way he can get it back, according to her wishes, is to write the follow-up book of poems he has been putting off for years. Needless to say, the man is not suddenly imbued with urgency. He continues to fuck off, ends up in jail at one point, and eventually in rehab where he meets a partner-in-crime, a preacher’s son named Flicker (Zac Efron), who is an even bigger asshole than him.
It’s a fantastic trick of cinema enabled by an indelible lead performance. If you knew Moondog in real life, you would almost certainly tire of him within minutes, but Korine hews so close to his perspective that you can’t help but buy into his bullshit. Moondog has no attachments and seeks to live only in the present. He’s a Buddhist who can’t stop talking about his dick. McConaughey sees no contradiction there, and he leads you, trance-like, into sympathy with him through sheer commitment. He shows his ass—literally and figuratively—throughout, and is so unconcerned with being likeable that you can’t help but admire him despite his selfish ways. None of the other actors in the film—from Jonah Hill as Moondog’s sleazy Southern manager to Snoop Dogg as, essentially, Snoop Dogg—come close to reaching his orbit.
There are so many prestige elements in The Beach Bum, from the big stars to the gorgeous, naturalistic cinematography, you might be fooled into thinking it actually matters, but it’s really just a stoner comedy with some half-baked observations about the artistic process. The plot wraps around so that we ultimately see Moondog’s meanderings as some sort of drawn-out artistic process (leading to a book of poems that the film is named for), but that there is any endpoint to the story at all feels like a surprise. It’s like you got stuck at a party talking to a guy explaining his theory of everything, and long after you started trying to extricate yourself, he suddenly arrives at a salient point. Whether it’s worth the time you spent with him is a more complicated question.
The Beach Bum opens Friday in theaters everywhere.