If Matthew McConaughey didn’t exist, writer-director Harmony Korine would have to invent him to play the titular role in “The Beach Bum.”
In what may be the most McConaughey-est role since the quotable Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused,” McConaughey plays Moondog, an aging stoner who follows his bliss from Key West to Miami and back again with a single-minded devotion to weed, women, and women with weed.
Korine’s previous Sunshine State opus, “Spring Breakers,” found a dark undercurrent to Florida’s hedonistic dream. But “The Beach Bum” offers no such moral counterweight. It’s a relentlessly sunny ode to an outlook on life that doesn’t amount to more than a “Have a Good Time All The Time” T-shirt bought in a beachside souvenir stand.
When we meet Moondog, he’s staggering around Key West, reading bad poems in dive bars to drunken patrons, keeping a combination beer buzz/marijuana fog sustained pretty much around the clock. He seems to have no means of income, but we later find out that he’s married to an equally debauched Miami heiress named Minnie (Isla Fisher). She doesn’t ask questions about where Moondog goes or what he does, as long as he doesn’t ask her either. Her activities include an affair with a very Snoop Doog-like musician played, of course, by Snoop Dogg.
Moondog putters home in his rowboat for the wedding of their daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen), mostly missing the ceremony and making an ass of himself at the reception. No matter — there’s nothing Moondog can do that his family won’t chuckle and tolerate.
Things take a turn when Minnie is killed in an accident, and her will stipulates that Moondog has to finish and publish his long-stalled book in order to get his half of her money. This feels like a typical Hollywood plot twist, designed to get the irresponsible main character to straighten up and fly right in the third act.
But the big joke in “The Beach Bum” is that Moondog is unable, not to mention unwilling, to change his stripes, even for $50 million. Instead, he stumbles through a series of escapades with other colorful characters, including a fellow rehab escapee (Zac Efron, sporting facial hair inspired by a panini) and an under-qualified tour boat captain (Martin Lawrence), whose inability to distinguish between dolphins and sharks proves to be a liability.
Some of this is funny. Some of it is kind of dull. Korine, the once-controversial wunderkind behind “Trash Humpers” and “Gummo,” has relocated to Florida, where he captures the garish, saltwater rotted world of faded motels and dive bars in all their seedy glory. Moondog is a native creature of this world, a drive-through daiquiri stand in human form. There’s never a doubt that he’ll live to party another day.
But the film’s refusal to challenge his ways, or even deepen him beyond caricature, becomes frustrating after a while. There’s one moment where, in Moondog’s grief over Minnie, we get a glimpse at a more complicated man. But Moondog quickly anesthetizes himself, and the door slams shut.
“The Beach Bum” is like one of those colorful local characters you might see strumming a ukulele for tips on the boardwalk late at night. You might stop and listen for a few minutes and enjoy yourself, maybe throw a few coins in his hat. But would you stand there for an hour and a half?