The space that Matthew McConaughey presently inhabits in the public eye is encapsulated by his Dazed and Confused character Wooderson’s catchphrase: “alright, alright, alright.” Though the Linklater film was released in 1993, it’s become shorthand to refer to both McConaughey and his laissez-faire attitude ever since he uttered the words onstage at the 86th Academy Awards. Everything’s cool, everything’s groovy, and there’s not a thing to worry about in the world.
The mantra is also the PG-rated, referential counterpart to McConaughey’s infamous run-in with the police. In 1999, cops arrived at the actor’s Texas home at 3 a.m. after neighbors reported that he was “disturbing the peace.” To be more specific, he was dancing around and playing the bongos in the buff. After a brief arrest for suspicion of possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, and resisting transportation (he allegedly refused to put on pants and shoved one of the cops trying to get him into the squad car), he was let go on $1,000 bond, and the drug charges were dropped.
McConaughey’s latest film, The Beach Bum, opens with McConaughey’s character, a drifter poet named Moondog, partying, drinking, smoking, and — you guessed it — playing the bongos in a state of undress. If Moondog’s freewheeling nature weren’t evident from his loud clothes, his beach-fried hair, or his very name, director Harmony Korine uses bongo-playing McConaughey as his coup de grâce. With that image, Korine distills the actor down to his essence, and communicates the core ethos of his movie: We’re all just here to have a good time — and The Beach Bum will get you there.
Though there is a plot driving the story — money problems force Moondog to finally work to make ends meet — The Beach Bum is more about the journey than the destination. Korine charts the swells and eddies in colors and music, rejecting the neon garishness of Spring Breakers in favor of a soft lushness that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Impressionist painting. Yellows melt into blues, pinpricks of warm light shift the dark blue of the night; Moondog’s classical stylings on the piano (he plays Beethoven) lead into the ramblings of Waylon Jennings and Peggy Lee.
That ease remains constant even as Moondog dips in and out of peril, encountering eccentric characters like Zac Efron as a panini-bearded pyromaniac named Flicker, Isla Fisher as Moondog’s willful wife Minnie, Snoop Dogg as the poetically named Rie (short for “Lingerie”), Martin Lawrence as the dolphin-loving Captain Wack, and the mayor of Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett, as ... himself. Though his situation may be dire — robbery and shark attacks both turn The Beach Bum on its head — Moondog never worries, and neither does Korine. The writer-director plays fast and loose with linear tradition (dialogue plays over footage of characters who aren’t speaking; locations switch back and forth while conversation remains seamless), pulling and kneading the film to the point that it feels like watching a dream.
Korine, best known for visceral (and sometimes cold) works like Kids, Spring Breakers, and Trash Humpers, brings a sweetness to The Beach Bum that feels novel. There’s not a shred of cynicism in the movie — in fact, Korine travels into feel-good, fantasy territory — even as his hedonistic hero wanders down less than saintly paths. The sex, drugs, and alcohol are secondary to chasing happiness on-screen and off, and trying to convey the feeling of love, platonic and romantic, through cinematic means. The film is engineered to be bliss, as the mix of mellow aesthetics, lack of stakes, and top-notch performances goes down as smoothly as a well-aged whisky.
Every actor is giving one of the best performances of their careers. Snoop Dogg is particularly good (between him and Andre 3000 in the upcoming High Life, it’s a big year for rappers stealing scenes in auteur films), as is Lawrence, appearing in his first feature film in eight years, and there’s such a ease to the entire cast that it’s easy to imagine spending hours and hours in The Beach Bum’s world.
But the sun around which the film orbits is McConaughey. As per the film’s opening scene, Moondog is essentially a hyper-elevated version of McConaughey himself, from the bongo-playing to the creaky chair laugh and easygoing charm. Though he often cedes the spotlight to the more impulsive characters with whom he’s sharing scenes, he’s ever-present, the one thing holding the loose threads of the story together. It’s heavier lifting than it looks — however unlikely it may seem given The Beach Bum’s easygoing attitude, it’s tragedy that spurs Moondog into motion, and colors the film with a bittersweetness that keeps it from flying purely into hedonistic fantasy.
Despite being a paean to burnouts, and hanging on a character who is perpetually stoned and half-dressed in Guy Fieri-esque flame shirts, The Beach Bum aims for — and hits — warmth and earnestness in its devotion to Moondog and simply living life; it’s utterly sublime. It’s also the best time McConaughey has ever had, and might just be one of the best times you’ll have at the movies this year.