There’s only one thing worse than a bad comedy: a pretentious one. “The Beach Bum” is a bland, frustrating film that tries to be both hilarious and deep, yet fails to accomplish either. Written and directed by Harmony Korine (“Spring Breakers”) and starring Matthew McConaughey (“Serenity”) in a role tailor-made for him, the movie is a hollow joyride of drugs and excess in the Florida Keys.
The most accurate microcosm for the movie’s grandiose emptiness is the image of McConaughey’s Moondog, a perfectly grisled, dashingly hysterical, fanny-pack-strapped, flip-up-sunglass-donning, sex-crazed stoner, leaning back in his rickety boat while clacking away on a typewriter. “The Beach Bum” animates the notion of late-night dorm-room philosophy — barely-coherent, juvenile ideas inflated into gobsmacking revelations — to tell a meandering, dry story of a man at odds with “civilization,” a vague, ubiquitous term that stands in for the film’s villain.
After a family tragedy forces the retired writer to finish his latest project in order to retain all his stunning wealth, he roams Florida in a hazy search for the meaning of life. The plot sounds corny when phrased this way, but the worst part of the movie is that it thinks it’s so much more than it is. Occasional solid editing and admittedly impressive visuals can’t cover up one simple fact: It’s a dumb idea for movie.
Another unaware summation of the film’s pompousness is a scene in which Moondog reads aloud one of his new poems at an academic ceremony. The poem is frankly terrible — a lewd anecdote about bestiality written during an acid trip — and the audience erupts in raucous applause. This is what Korine so desperately wants from the audience of his own film, an enthusiastic appraisal of crude writing. But the most pretentious moment in the whole film is a slow motion, semi-biblical montage of homeless junkies throwing furniture in a lavish pool set to a crisp orchestra. The scene is so ridiculous and overblown that I physically cringed in response. To be fair, when the film stopped worrying about its overbearing ideas, it almost worked. “The Beach Bum” has its funny moments, including a shark attack scene that had me doubled over with laughter, but for the majority of the time I was not grinning. I was just waiting for the mess to be over.
By the time the film ended in a thunderous explosion, I felt like I had missed a birthday. Despite a brisk runtime of 95 minutes, “The Beach Bum” felt like an eternity, hopping from drug-fueled episode to drug-fueled episode without a concrete narrative.
Despite Moondog’s largely lethargic character arc, McConaughey was thoroughly entertaining and perfect for the role. His unique drawl and graceful charisma are ideal for the seedy ease of Moondog. It never feels like he’s performing, just exuding the maturely ironic aspect of his charm that comes through in every role of his. And yet, none of the film’s other characters are even a little bit interesting. Both Isla Fisher (“Tag”) and Snoop Dogg (“Law & Order: SVU”) have secondary roles, but are ultimately purposeless vehicles for Moondog’s development. Another music icon in the cast was Jimmy Buffett, playing himself. Somehow, the idea of Jimmy Buffett partying with washed-up stoners on the west coast of Florida was one of the most realistic aspects of the movie.
“The Beach Bum” is the most agonizing kind of movie to watch. I didn’t totally hate it, but I would have enjoyed my experience more if it had been unambiguously atrocious. Instead, the film is the product of one pretentious writer writing about another pretentious writer and is about as impactful as a 3 a.m. dorm room philosophy discussion.