Harmony Korine’s “The Beach Bum” has an infectiously shambling, loosey-goosey vibe. You could think of this stoner romp as a quasi-sequel to “Spring Breakers,” the director’s blistering 2013 ode to youthful American hedonism and its discontents, but it’s more like that movie’s endearingly obnoxious little brother — sweeter, mellower, less hellbent on outrage.
With irrepressible energy and a whisper of melancholy, the movie tracks the ludicrous exploits of Moondog, a filthy-rich Florida poet and libertine played by a wholly committed Matthew McConaughey, and treated by Korine with the sort of intense affection that often signals a kindred spirit. You may regard Moondog with less tolerance, especially if you are allergic to flaky, drug-addled comedies about appallingly self-centered people.
I generally am, to be honest. But Korine, a generous entertainer and a shrewd satirist, likes to mess around with form, ideas and your own guarded expectations. His ’90s art house breakthroughs (“Gummo,” “Julien Donkey-Boy”) took particular delight in challenging the audience’s sensibilities and sometimes trying its patience, but as his slicker, craftier recent work has shown, he is also skilled at getting past those defenses, at least when the mood strikes him.
Mood is the operative word in “The Beach Bum.” This is a comedy whose laughs seem to arise as much from the silly, sun-drenched atmosphere as from individual gags, and whose pleasures can feel as sweet and impermanent as marijuana smoke. But it also has hypnotic images that linger (the cinematographer Benoît Debie paints with a palette of gorgeous daytime sunbursts and nighttime neons), and funny ones that keep tickling you after the movie’s ended. Days later I’m still chuckling at the memory of Martin Lawrence’s crack-addicted parrot, Zac Efron’s panini-press sideburns and the guy smoking a joint the size of a burrito. You needn’t bring one of your own to the theater — at least, not one that big — to have a good time.
Although maybe not quite as good a time as McConaughey seems to be having. Wearing a stringy blond wig, a fanny pack and a succession of aggressively gaudy shirt-and-shorts ensembles, he makes Moondog a fount of lunatic joy, the vulgar life of every Florida party. He’s the joker you’ll see urinating off the side of a dock or jumping out of a hot tub to perform an impromptu thong-and-dance number. He’s also, apparently, one of Key West’s hottest literary voices since Hemingway, though what little we hear of his poetry is more or less what you might expect from a guy whose preferred writing position is the manspread, a manual typewriter planted at his crotch.
Devoted scholars of the McConnaissance — the midcareer resurgence that began around the time of “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Magic Mike” and arguably peaked with the actor’s Oscar-winning performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” — will have their own theories about whether Moondog represents an inspired extension or a dreadful byproduct of that hot streak. Some may conclude, not without reason, that the character contains at least a smattering of autobiography, perhaps acknowledging the bout of pot-smoking, bongo-playing exhibitionism that earned McConaughey some harmless notoriety in the late ’90s.
If so, however, he also has a bit of the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” in his pop-cultural DNA, plus a few lashings of Alien, the millennial-thug-life Gatsby so memorably played by James Franco in “Spring Breakers.” But unlike Alien, Moondog has no use for guns and little interest in menace. The closest he gets to handling weapons is when he vigorously paddles a lover’s backside with a metal spatula — and since they’re going at it in a restaurant kitchen, well, what else is he supposed to use?
Moondog is such a beer-swilling free spirit that it’s a bit of a surprise when he rides his boat home after a long, hazy spell and has a family waiting for him. But his wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), hasn’t exactly done her waiting alone. She’s having an affair with Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), a close friend of the couple, and she also has her enormous wealth, much of which funds Moondog’s ridiculous exploits. Fisher distills a world of lovely, subdued feeling into a few scenes: Whatever exasperation Minnie may have felt for her crazy husband has long since evaporated, leaving behind only wistful, tolerant affection.
It helps, of course, that the two are rich enough to be able to afford long stretches of time apart and open enough to spend that time as they wish. But if they can seem like jokey One Percent bohemian caricatures — the kind of people who have sex outdoors in frilly pink bathrobes while their servants maneuver around them unperturbed — their marriage of convenience is also one of real, complicated feeling. Minnie knows Moondog better than anyone, himself included. This becomes all too clear when circumstances suddenly change and he finds himself cut off from her fortune unless he can finish his latest novel.
That’s about as much plot as “The Beach Bum” has or needs as it slips into aggressively shaggy-dog mode, conjuring a mood of grief and desperation that is almost immediately shooed away by the sheer warmth of Moondog’s idiot bonhomie. Which is not to say that his charm is irresistible. His newly married daughter, Heather (Stephanie LaVie Owen), who usually gives him the same mystifying free pass everyone else does, refuses to bail him out. His literary agent (Jonah Hill, sporting a boisterously awful Southern accent) is not much more supportive. And it isn’t long before Moondog’s (self-)destructive habits land him in rehab, which can only hold him for so long.
Along the way he goes on the run with the aptly named Flicker (Efron), who’s on screen just long enough to make a memorable foil. Efron is quickly replaced by an even better Lawrence (ending a ridiculous eight-year absence from the big screen) as a Vietnam veteran and dolphin tour guide who has an unfortunate ability to tell one type of dorsal fin from another. Some hilarious, sometimes grisly gags ensue, but Moondog, whether he’s pushing innocent people off docks or causing massive property damage, is almost never the butt of the joke; he floats above it all, blissfully immune to real pain or consequences.
For some, that might make “The Beach Bum” an infuriatingly indulgent portrait of destructive ego and toxic privilege, and also a toothless comedown after the sharper, more subversive pleasures of “Spring Breakers.” I’m not so sure. This is the sunnier, friendlier movie, to be sure, and one no less awash in booze and topless beauties, but Korine’s refusal to moralize shouldn’t be dismissed as a lack of moral vision. (A film in which Moondog redeems himself by successfully completing a 12-step program — now, that would be a real comedy.)
There’s something haunting, and quietly lacerating, about McConaughey’s portrait of a man who has effectively anesthetized himself to pain, who has made the pleasure principle an all-consuming philosophy. We are left with the spectacle of Moondog in his element — beer, naturally — and celebrating as fireworks explode overhead, blissfully unaware of what awaits him when this particular hangover wears off. Like so much of what we see in “The Beach Bum,” it’s a beautiful image, though never quite so beautiful as it is ghastly.
‘The Beach Bum’
Rating: R, for pervasive drug and alcohol use, language throughout, nudity and some strong sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes