Down in the Florida Keys, you’ll find a music-loving free spirit named Moondog (Matthew McConaughey). He’s a local legend of sorts; once a prolific poet, he now spends all of his time having sex, getting high and procrastinating on his new book. He fought in a war at one point, probably in Vietnam, and it likely had a profound effect on his hippie-drippy approach to life.
Moondog is a lot of things. He’s a hedonist. A freeloader. A genius. A has-been burnout. In the words of his daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen): “He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man.” Moondog lives a nomadic lifestyle, away from his beautiful, wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher), who lives in a mansion in Miami. You’ll always see him carelessly cavorting about the beaches of Key West with a typewriter, a joint and a can of PBR in tow. He’ll sleep anywhere, dance anywhere, and fuck anywhere.
And wherever Moondog goes, the good times must follow.
One day, Moondog gets a call from Minnie: Heather’s getting married to a total limp dick. You wouldn’t like him. But as her father, Moondog should attend the wedding. “Civilization?” Moondog groans. “I’m a bottom feeder. I gotta go low to get high, you know that.” Minnie’s right, though; Moondog has been gone from home too long. And with that, Moondog jumps into his motor-powered dinghy and heads north to Miami.
But you have to understand one thing about Moondog: responsibility isn’t really his thing, man. It doesn’t matter how important or serious an occasion is; Moondog does what he pleases. And if you so happen to get hurt from his destructive behaviour, that’s just collateral damage.
One thing leads to another, and suddenly, Moondog is under pressure to complete his book. But even when the stakes are high, Moondog always finds a way to bring them down low. He drifts from place-to-place, from person-to-person, narrowly escaping danger and laughing it off with his signature howl. “Ha-ha-haaaaa!”
And Moondog sure has plenty of friends. Or at the very least, people who pretend to be his friend. There’s his agent Lewis (Jonah Hill), who loathes Moondog’s poor work ethic. There’s Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), a singer and weed smuggler who Minnie also has a casual affair with. There’s Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), a fellow war veteran that has his own business as a dolphin tour guide. And there’s Flicker (Zac Efron), a pyromaniac with a penchant for Christian metal bands.
Like a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Inherent Vice and “Homer’s Enemy,” The Beach Bum is a story about an unlikable drunk who embarks on a chaotic, drug-fuelled adventure, culminating in the completion of his greatest literary work. Life has a habit of giving Moondog what he wants. He has an attractive wife who loves him in his entirety, a wealthy estate that affords him a cushy life, and an artistic reputation that allows him to wreak havoc on those around him without fear of consequence.
One has to wonder if Moondog’s easygoing personality is a result of his good fortune, or the other way around.
A number of critics have been quick to criticize The Beach Bum. Toronto Star’s Peter Howell gives the movie a one-star review titled, “How did Matthew McConaughey make a movie as bad as The Beach Bum?” Meanwhile, A.O. Scott of The New York Times calls the movie stale: “What ‘The Beach Bum’ celebrates as transgression is pure tedium.” And Kacey Connolly of Amherst Wire labels it as “the worst movie of 2019… a pointless movie with a pointless plot for the humor of it.”
Oh please, don’t be such a narc. If you hate The Beach Bum, you just don’t understand Moondog. It’s not his fault he’s never punished for bad behaviour; he’s just being true to himself. To quote Moondog, “I’m quite certain that the world is conspiring to make me happy.” In other words, Moondog knows he’s a good-for-nothing bum, but the world continues to reward him anyway.
Or perhaps the critics don’t understand Harmony Korine. As the writer-director of 2012’s Spring Breakers, Korine writes with a keen, satirical edge. His movies are never trashy for the sake of being trashy. They reveal something fundamental and ugly about America, something we don’t want to acknowledge. The Beach Bum is no different. Like Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, The Beach Bum shows how America is obsessed with sex, drugs and pure excess, how the country always rewards the immoral, selfish and lazy.
And the fact that a narcissist like Moondog can go through life unscathed says less about him and more about you.
Just look around you: a willfully ignorant narcissist is the President of the United States. He surrounds himself with crooks who help him extort the poor and line their pockets with money. They lavish in opulence they never deserved and go unpunished. Let’s face it: Moondog is America.
The thing I love most about The Beach Bum is how Korine doesn’t condone Moondog’s behaviour, but doesn’t chastise him for it either. Like his own time spent in South Florida, Korine is merely an observer to Moondog’s odyssey. And in doing so, Korine taps into a larger truth. Because, as Moondog himself describes, his actions aren’t motivated by money, glory or safety—he’s just in it to have fun. And suddenly, America’s overwhelming corruption starts to make sense. Powerful people can ignore violence, inequality and climate change because it doesn’t affect them directly. Because nothing really matters if all they’re interested in is pleasure.
The fall of all great empires happens not with raging conflict, but with soothing promises spoken through easy smiles. The Beach Bum illustrates this point with precision and clarity. In Moondog’s mind, everything always seems to work out. And even if they don’t, I’m sure he doesn’t mind. He’ll just coast through life like he always does, going wherever his libido takes him and leaving a trail of fire in his wake.
Because wherever Moondog goes, the good times must follow.