The Beach Bum ★★★½

Tough as hell to pin down, but a lot closer to true, I think, than comes totally naturally to admit. The construction of this, through Korine’s direction but especially through the screenplay and McConaughey’s irony-barren performance, begs you to be frustrated with Moondog, and not without cause. I think it cheats to get there (some of the stuff his daughter lets him get away with, some of the falser wish-fulfillment beats late in the film), but even the cheats are in service of a purpose: what are the lines in the sand here? Where does Moondog cross them? Where are we made to think he does, to bring the hammer down on him for anything this fucking Bacchus-ass dipshit does, even in moments that themselves don’t beggar such a response?

There are moments that don’t invite this nuance, but it’s their clear-cut that provides an exception to the rule, and then further delineates that rule in the first place. Moments like McConaughey and Efron stealing a guy’s money, or the real big blip on this film’s dramatic radar that I’d rather not further alude to. Moments where Moondog’s actions have ramifications outside himself. But for much of the movie, for all the inanity on display, Moondog’s just chasing his own idea of a good time, with his own means.

Or sometimes his own means? This is a perfect example of what I mean where I think this movie is capable of drawing out surprising nuance from Moondog’s actions: his relationship to property. He destroys a boat and a ton of his own money — is there any reason to balk at the “wastefulness” when those things are inherently opulent? But then of course one must consider the wildlife in that harbor, though and then again one boat can’t do too much damage I wouldn’t think. 

Or alternatively: McConaughey and Efron begin their night of debauchery with a broken window of a building neither of them own. Obviously shitty, right? Obviously creates work for someone, costs someone money. But how damnable really is it, when whoever replaces that window was going to do something at work that day, whether they broke the window or not; when the people whose money fund that window are not hurt by the cost of one replacement?

These are the kinds of bizarrely deep ponderings I wandered on while watching the Beach Bum, and are unquestionably it’s biggest boon for my money. I don’t remember the last time I felt like I saw a character study that could both so specifically create a person of particular nuances and place them in a society that refracts our own. It really bucks back against a dismissive impulse baked into the execution here, seeming to ask: where does “nobody lives in a vacuum” go from a truism to something used as a cudgel against someone enjoying their life in the way they want, but of which we don’t approve?

Two notes, for the record. One, I think I’m unusually open to this interpretation on account of thinking that Moondog’s life honestly resembles what I think an average life could be like in the absence of wage slave capitalism. That this is seemingly only open to the wealthy and connected right now is perhaps only too appropriate. Two, I’m likewise extra open to the idea of a character who is so violently diverges from society’s idea of “right” but lives in a specific moral spot that exposes how some of those ideas aren’t right in the first place. It’s one of my favorite qualities of, for example, Gone Girl, and is something I so much wanted to feel about Acrimony last year.

I write so much about the broad strokes here because I don’t necessarily think all the particulars are brilliant (only McConaughey and Fisher really kill it, although I do think Hill is somehow both ironically and unironically funny in the same moment which is weird; the aforementioned writing cheats eat away at a bit of the verisimilitude here; it’s not nearly as funny as it thinks it is, especially for any real questionable comedy around gender expectations). But this added up to way more than the sum of its parts for me. I’ve still only elsewise seen Breakers from Korine, and one thing I wondered coming into this is if he’s actually secretly a phony with just enough cinematic verve to hide it. Still don’t know! But he clearly is making things of interest to me either way.

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