‘The Beach Bum’: Matthew McConaughey Smokes and Drinks the World Away in Harmony Korine’s Stoner Comedy

The world might be going crazy, but maybe it’s best to just smoke out and chill. That seems to be the underlying message of “The Beach Bum,” the new portrait of American debauchery by Harmony Korine. This is Korine’s first film since 2013’s infamous “Spring Breakers,” a wild neon satire of America, as viewed through the eyes of criminally-inclined party animals. “The Beach Bum” is more mellow, preferring to follow Matthew McConaughey as he taps into a trashy sort of zen space. In this story the ultimate act of resistance against conformity is to chill.

McConaughey goes blonde as Moondog, a once recognized poet who spends his days and nights in the Florida Keys, basking in the beer, women and beaches. Back on the shore, his wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) tries to lure him back to attend the wedding of their daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen). Attending the ceremony is old friend, rap star (and Minnie’s lover) Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). Moondog defines free spirit, he stumbles into the wedding, tests the groom’s nether regions and toasts the festivities with a medically precise description of holding Heather for the first time. But after a night of heavy partying, involving Heather and Moondog driving on the opposite side of the road, Moondog is suddenly left in a crisis. An accident results in a will which states that Moondog will be left without an inheritance if he does not finish and publish a new book. The beach bum suddenly has a stark choice, truly reach the potential of his talent, or face having to party without a penny.

It is McConaughey’s performance and cast that carry this quirky, cheerfully reckless film. While the story has the specks of a plot, what it really functions as is a portrait of a lounging creature in post-modern America. Imagine McConaughey’s Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused” in his late 40s, having discovered a literary talent but reduced to simply getting high by the ocean. Like Jeff Bridges’s legendary The Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” Moondog is a shaggy rebel who hates conformity because he despises the idea of a routine or any semblance of discipline. He pecks away like a hipster on a typewriter, but would rather have risqué sexual encounters or pass out by some skaters while quoting Baudelaire. Once he goes on his post-tragedy quest, the film becomes an odyssey, charting Moondog’s mini-adventures with colorful, bizarre characters. He’s ordered by a judge to go to rehab, where he meets Flicker (Zac Efron), a preacher’s son who believes Christ having died for mankind’s sins gives one free reign to do anything (even smash a bottle on a man in a wheelchair to get his wallet). There’s also Moondog’s publisher, Lewis, hilariously played by Jonah Hill, who speaks with good southern manners but boasts that he loves being rich because you can treat people however you want. The sanest person in Moondog’s orbit is Lingerie, who even feels a tinge of guilt for having slept with Minnie. But he’s a loyal friend, lending Moondog money and letting him use a getaway plane piloted by a legally blind, pot-smoking Jamaican. Snoop Dogg fits effortlessly into the role, bringing his signature swag.

Korine’s previous work has been known to be provocative and dark. Even the pop colors of “Spring Breakers” decorated a violent fantasy about college girls shacking up with a Miami drug dealer. That film was more of a satirical commentary on America, money and the aesthetic of guns. “The Beach Bum” never reaches its intensity. McConaughey’s transformation is not as striking as James Franco’s demented thug in “Spring Breakers,” and not a single scene here comes close to that film’s best moment, where gun-toting former Disney starlets dance with shotguns to Britney Spears. Working again with cinematographer Benoît Debie, Korine bathes Moondog’s world in rich sunsets, gorgeous twilights and neon evenings, but the tone is pure hedonism and lighter humor. Some moments are bohemian joy as Moondog leads a troupe of fellow bums into his former mansion to have an impromptu pool party. The soundtrack enjoyable uses songs by artists like The Cure, as in a rather brilliantly funny moment where Moondog sees Millie and Lingerie kissing under fireworks.

While Korine’s aims might seem less focused, he has at least created a memorable character who even reaches levels of hilariously dysfunctional endearment. In a way Moondog represents countless people who have genuine gifts or talents, but they don’t mind just squandering them away. Even the losers around him like Flicker immediately recognize his gift for words when he improvises a few lines, beer can raised. Moondog is so well-read he can plagiarize D.H. Lawrence and make it sound like his own. Of course it’s easy to lounge around when you have resources, but what happens when the leisurely get the rug pulled from under them? Yet Korine isn’t telling a morality tale. Moondog isn’t necessarily supposed be or become an example. He deals with life by opening a cold one, lighting a big blunt and maybe composing a verse. Other people have their own way of coping.

The ending might hold the key to understanding what Korine is trying to say. Moondog carries out a defiant act, the ultimate rebellion by a free spirit against the material things we yearn for in this cutthroat economy. Some in the audience may not agree completely with the message, but McConaughey helps Korine deliver it with drunken charm. His sun-tanned bum seems to be saying, the Mueller report has been delivered, the cost of living keeps rising, but hey, sometimes it’s not such a bad idea to find an old speedboat and just drift away.

The Beach Bum” opens March 29 in select theaters.