Leaving Key West

Matthew McConaughey is an alcoholic poet in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum

Harmony Korine emerged in 1995 as foremost gutter-punk bad boy of Gen X filmmakers, a beautiful loser who mirrored on screen the raw nihilistic yowl of Kurt Cobain’s prophetic anthem to latchkey disintegration: “I feel stupid, and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us.”

Korine’s screenplay for Larry Clark’s seminal street flick Kids was the withering reflection of Nirvana’s dialectic of triumphant despair — an anti-epic prose-poem about oversexed, underprivileged, drugged-up teenagers staring down the barrel of AIDS, economic inaction and impending social collapse. It’s a brutal movie, mesmerizing in its very repulsiveness, and it remains one of the finest reflections of what it actually felt like to be young and unhinged in the ’90s, twittering around on the anxious cusp of all this we’re now choking down.

Korine’s directorial debut, Gummo (1997), is one of the strangest, most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. And I’ll just leave that there.

Fast-forward nearly two decades to Korine’s 2012 film Spring Breakers, a postlapsarian bookend to Kids in which a gaggle of college girls heading for spring break in Florida descends into a very modern hell of sex, meth, robbery and wanton gang violence.

Spring Breakers is a terrifying but oddly exhilarating film — a surreal fisheye glimpse of the grotesque underbelly of MTV’s pimped reality, in which a scantily clad cornucopia of tits-and-ass comes to resemble a late-capitalist triptych by Hieronymus Bosch. Korine, the sneaky moralist that he is, skewers a generation by backhandedly celebrating it, revealing that apocalyptic moment when apathy meets orgy.

Korine’s new movie is a sequel of sorts, though the two films are held together by the most tenuous of threads: Florida as a location and debauchery as a subject. Unlike Spring Breakers, however, which reveled mean-spiritedly in its own glittery nihilism, The Beach Bum embraces despair as a badge of honor and a flag of rebellion. It raises a middle finger to the very defeatism that swamps it, turning failure into ragged heroism.

The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Moondog, a semi-famous middle-aged poet whose best work may be behind him. Tooling around on a boat christened “Well Hung,” he carries his portable manual typewriter around the Florida Keys, looking for inspiration. Basically, Moondog is a sand-encrusted surfer version of Charles Bukowski’s alcoholic tramp-poet, swamped in an endless swirl of pussy, booze and sing-alongs with Jimmy Buffett. Yes, Jimmy Buffett.

Isla Fisher is perfect as Moondog’s loving, long-tolerant wife, Minnie; turns out the couple’s combined wealth is actually all hers, which Minnie uses, with mortal reckoning, to push him to finish his novel (yes, the myth of the alcoholic writer is in full force here). Snoop Dogg plays Moondog’s friend Lingerie, and Jonah Hill gives another good turn as his not-so-smooth-talking literary agent. Martin Lawrence plays a con man named Captain Wack, and Zac Efron is Moondog’s fellow rehab refugee Flicker.

Of course, things happen to move the negligible plot along — even a tragic, if predictable, death — though the sole dynamo of the movie is McConaughey, who is by turns indelibly charming and infuriatingly sloppy, an alcoholic genius with a heart of gold who is as likely to burn down his own house as to break into yours to steal all the booze. The alcoholic pilgrim’s progress toward redemption is an old story, but McConaughey — lanky, stoned, full of a bent grace and that purpled drawl — gives it an undeniably dangerous and heady glow. He is the movie.

Redemption, though, might be the wrong word. Korine lavishes an almost sensual attention on McConaughey, whose character absolutely refuses to change despite all the damage piling up in his wake. Moondog clings to his ways as an act of ultimate liberation, recalling other great fictional alcoholics — the Consul in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Ben Sanders in Leaving Las Vegas, for instance — whose self-destruction was held up as an act of anti-creation, a spurning of reality.

For better or worse, The Beach Bum buys into this mythology of destructive creativity, and it does so quite frankly, setting the whole works on fire. No longer a kid himself, Korine sets his adult eyes on the emptiness of wealth and fame and all that. And then he grabs a match. (Broadway Metro)