“He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man.”
America loves bad boy genius antiheroes, and that line could describe the protagonist of literally hundreds of films and television shows. It might refer, for example, to the titular hero of Citizen Kane (1941), to Mozart of Amadeus (1984), to Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008), to Ray Kroc in The Founder (2016) or to Don Draper in Mad Men.
But the quote in question refers to none of these iconic jerks. Instead, it refers to Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), the burnout poet at the center of Harmony Korine’s new film, The Beach Bum.
Korine has a reputation as a left-field idiosyncratic genius himself. A recent GQ profile of him titled “Harmony Korine, Glorious Weirdo” lauds the director for rejecting a traditional Hollywood career in order to pursue his own “abstruse script.” But there’s nothing particularly abstruse about The Beach Bum. It’s just another story about a brilliant white guy asshole that we’re supposed to admire both for the brilliance and for the assholery. It deploys the usual conventions that are supposed to encourage us to grant impunity to the usual icon of supposed unconventionality. The Beach Bum declares it’s hero is different, just like everyone else.
The Beach Bum is somewhat looser in structure than most Hollywood movies, borrowing its look and rhythms about equally from indie film and music videos. Moondog wanders around Miami and the Keys in ragged beach wear, ingesting controlled substances, having casual heterosexual intercourse, and encountering outrageous characters played by recognizable performers like Snoop Dogg and Martin Lawrence. Moondog almost misses his daughter’s wedding; he goes to rehab; he beats a disabled man and steals his money. Occasionally he writes poetry, and then people tell him his poetry is awesome. Sometimes, for variety, he watches videos of his younger self reciting poetry, and tells himself he’s awesome. Life is great, dude.
A lot of the greatness of Moondog’s life involves much younger women wearing very little clothing who drape themselves over and near him when he’s writing and fuck him enthusiastically on his boat, in hotels, or in restaurant kitchens while he takes a break. It’s impossible to watch the flagrantly repulsive Moondog grope everything within reach without thinking about #MeToo and the forgive-them-because-they-make-brilliant-art attitude which made Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly possible. All the sex on display is supposed to be consensual, but there are jokes about blurred lines, and everybody is more than half stoned all the time. We also know Moondog is willing to commit various serious crimes without a second thought. Unconventional freedom for Moondog, as for lots of iconic powerful men, means access to lots of women. It also means that the question of how he treats those women is never even raised.
There are two women in the film who are presented as something other than eye candy. Moondog’s daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), is marrying a dull guy who Moondog constantly refers to as “limp dick.” She eventually dumps him and tells Moondog he was right all along, massaging his ego just like all the other women in the film.
And then there’s Moondog’s wife, Minnie, played with bubbly carnality by Isla Fisher, who steals every scene she’s in. She could easily have taken the whole movie from McConaughey, if Korine had let her. Which he adamantly does not.
Minnie is very rich, and enjoys getting high and having sex as much as Moondog, whom she supports financially. She has enthusiastic intercourse with him, but also cheats on him with his best friend (played by Snoop). She feels so little guilt about her infidelity that she boasts about her lover’s sexual prowess to her daughter. Powerful men who fuck around may be very common on screen, but independent women who defy the double standard joyfully and without consequences are still a rarity.
So, of course, Minnie experiences consequences. Moondog’s cheating is fine, but seeing Minnie with another man mildly disturbs the hero. Not to worry, though; shortly after he discovers Minnie’s having an affair, she conveniently dies in a drunken car crash, from which Moondog, of course, walks away unharmed in body or spirit.
Korine safely transforms Minnie into a fond memory (yes there is the obligatory montage), and we can go back to focusing on white male awesomeness without any uncomfortable challenges to anyone’s masculinity. Characteristically, when Moondog wins the Pulitzer, the poem he reads ostensibly in tribute to his dead wife is literally an ode to his own penis.
At the conclusion of the film Moondog (inevitably) pontificates on his philosophy of life. He says he likes to have fun, he says he like drugs and hot women, he says that all those squares out there just choose to live their conventional boring lives when they could be out here laughing maniacally and having lots of sex like our hero.
This is supposed to be a revelation. But Moondog’s insights are no different than the dare-to-be-different sloganeering of innumerable self-help books and corporate training exercises. The film’s message is the same as the moral of Jim Carrey’s execrable Yes Man (2008), in which the protagonist learns that if you just say yes to everything you will self-actualize and obtain an edgy younger girlfriend. If you’re sad, or unhappy, or upset for more than a millisecond after your wife dies, or don’t win a Pulitzer, it’s your own fault. Marry rich, get everyone to call you a genius, pull out that magic penis and fuck everything within reach. You’ll feel much better
Rich white male geniuses like Moondog—and for that matter like Harmony Korine—are the real counterculture rebels, The Beach Bum assures us for the millionth time. Their antics are outrageous, their thoughts are deep, their sexual escapades are really cool. Yes they’re assholes, but you have to forgive them, because they’re brilliant. And how do you know they’re brilliant? Why, because they’re rich white male assholes. So all of Hollywood assures us, and why should this movie’s portrayal of edgy difference be any different? The Beach Bum shows, once again, at tedious length, that nonconformity has its own tired tropes and its own stifling conformity. v