Why Harmony Korine’s ‘The Beach Bum’ May be the Defining Movie of the Trump Era
I’m not one who likes to say that works of art produced in the Trump era are necessarily about Donald Trump. I recognize that not everything is political, and not always necessary to read a Trump-related subtext into every movie or TV show, especially if it has nothing to do with Trump.
That said: Harmony Korine’s new film, The Beach Bum, is absolutely an allegory about the rise of Donald Trump. It may not have been intentional, and I have no idea what Korine’s political views are, but it’s absolutely there.
The Beach Bum is a film about a hedonistic and amoral man who is constantly cheered by adoring crowds, and never suffers the slightest consequences for consistently abhorrent behavior. What else could the film be about?
The Beach Bum, which debuted at South by Southwest last month and received a modest release last week, is the indie filmmaker’s follow-up to 2012’s Spring Breakers, which was both the most accessible and most commercially successful release of Korine’s career. The new film remains in that film’s scuzzy South Florida mileau.
The Beach Bum is a film about a hedonistic and amoral man who is constantly cheered by adoring crowds, and never suffers the slightest consequences for consistently abhorrent behavior.
It’s a hugely entertaining film, one that had me howling with laughter at times. But there’s something really interesting going on below the surface.
Matthew McConaughey stars as “Moondog,” a sort of exaggerated version of McConaughey’s established persona. Introduced reclining shirtlessly on a boat somewhere in the Florida Keys, Moondog ambles about, constantly drunk and high, often adorned with ladies in various states of undress.
Perhaps the typewriter on his boat was a clue, but eventually we catch on that this drug-addled buffoon who can barely string a sentence together is in fact a famous poet and man of letters. Literary respect tends not to accrue to men with names like “Moondog,” but we’re meant to just go with it I suppose.
Moondog is then lured back to Miami by his super-rich, semi-estranged wife (Isla Fisher) for the wedding of their daughter. He then rolls into the wedding late dressed like a member of Guns ‘n’ Roses, grabs his future son-in-law by the crotch, and addresses him as “limpdick.” And afterward, no one seems all that mad at him, indicating that this sort of display is par for the course.
The rest of the film is a series of adventures, as Moondog travels around Florida visiting friends old and new. The segment with Martin Lawrence as an old sea captain buddy is a highlight, as is an interlude with Zac Efron wearing a beard that’s assembled in a manner that looks physically impossible. This is the kind of movie that puts its protagonist on a boat with Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett, while making it clear that while Buffett is playing himself, Snoop is portraying a fictional character.
Some Guys Have All the Luck
Throughout the film, one thing is clear: Moondog can do lots of insane stuff, including a level of non-consensual public groping that makes the Joe Biden accusations currently in the news look like nothing. He pushes people into bodies of water, he escapes from court-ordered rehab, and he steals cars, boats, and planes.
For all the gross, immoral, and illegal things he does, the result is always that Moondog is rewarded with riches and resurgent literary fame.
For all of this the consequences are.. absolutely nonexistent. Even serious criminal jeopardy disappears without explanation. For all the gross, immoral, and illegal things he does, the result is always that Moondog is rewarded with riches and resurgent literary fame.
Moondog resembles a character from Entourage, in one of those episodes where the crew fucks around doing nothing for 25 minutes until like Martin Scorsese calls to offer Vince $20 million to star in his next movie.
But that’s not the only person he brings to mind.
Moondog for President
Sure, Donald Trump doesn’t do drugs, and Moondog isn’t particularly hostile towards immigrants. But in a lot of ways, they’re the same guy.
Beyond the mansions in South Florida, and the groping, and the garbled syntax, and the inexplicable devoted fan base, the Moondog and The Donald share something else: The ability to get away with all manners of malfeasance, by virtue of being rich, famous, male, and white.
This isn’t exactly a subtle film, but in one late scene, Jonah Hill – playing Moondog’s literary agent, hilariously, as a Southern dandy – says that what’s great about being rich is that, “you can be awful to people and they have to take it.” On the nose as the sentiment is, it undoubtedly resonates.
“He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man,” Moondog’s daughter says at one point about Moondog, in a line that sounds an awful lot like Ivanka Trump’s attitude towards her father. And there’s no way the president hasn’t addressed Jared Kushner as “limpdick” at least once.
A Buried ‘Bum’
The Beach Bum didn’t get much of a theatrical release, as Neon likely determined it wasn’t an easy sell. Following January’s batshit noir, Serenity – which you should, of course, see as well – The Beach Bum is the second film in the last four months starring Matthew McConaughey as a dude who lives on his boat in Florida to be all-but-dumped by its distributor without promotion or critics screenings.
…I won’t be the slightest bit shocked if the character one day emerged as a cult character in the tradition of The Dude…
The Beach Bum appears to have been somewhat misunderstood. I’ve seen it attacked as an amoral, gross film that celebrates a terrible protagonist. I’ve also seen the film celebrated, the way The Wolf of Wall Street was, by people who see Moondog as an unambiguous hero and role model. Either way, I won’t be the slightest bit shocked if the character one day emerged as a cult character in the tradition of The Dude in The Big Lebowski.
They’re both right (and wrong.) Korine’s film takes a circuitous root to its point, but ultimately makes it very well: Some people can get away with just about anything.