In our monthly column Laughed to Death, Brianna Zigler looks at the marriage between comedy and existentialism. For this installment, she unpacks the idyllic, inane approach to nihilism, mortality, and the absurdity of existence in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum.
“I could tell you that I’ve been trying to cover the abyss beneath my illusory connection with the world. I could tell you that it’s all written in the stars. I could tell you that I’m a reverse paranoiac; I’m quite certain that the world is conspiring to make me happy. All three of which are true, but it’s a little simpler than that. I like to have fun, man. Fun’s the fuckin’ gun, man.”
When we first meet Moondog, “the most prolific poet in Key West, Florida,” in Harmony Korine‘s The Beach Bum, he’s floating down the darkened, damp road of a night that has only just begun. Suddenly, through his eternally drugged-out haze, he notices a kitten, a pure white, little mewling thing that manages to catch his eye instantly. When no one comes to claim it at that moment, the aimless boozer takes over custody of the abandoned misfit, bringing the animal along with him to a dank, dirty dive bar that welcomes his presence with the enthusiasm of the local legend that he is. Kitten in one hand, notebook in the other, he proceeds to recite a poem for the fawning crowd about finding beauty in his penis that had twice been inside someone he loves that day.
He recites this same poem while wearing a beautiful women’s ballgown as he accepts his Pulitzer Prize at the end of the film. Just preceding this concluding moment, he is bathed in a pool of indigo light and donning a floral women’s swimsuit top, smiling serenely to himself as he tries to answer an interviewer asking the simple question “How’d you pull it off?”. Yes, how did this once-revered, has-been poet who pisses away his money on drugs, booze, women, and all forms of utmost pleasure and filth-encrusted decadence come back from the financial and artistic brink and craft another seminal work of art? His aforementioned explanation is one that, on the surface, seems to sum up the entire anchor of this existentialist, stoner comedy.
Korine, the notoriously provocative director of Gummo, Trash Humpers, and Springs Breakers, returns to the humid, hedonistic haven of Florida and centers his seventh film on the exploits of the man known only to us as Moondog (Matthew McConaughey in what feels like the laid-back, dirtbag role he was always born to play). Sometimes, the character can be found schmoozing in grimy bars and fucking patrons in the kitchen; sometimes he’s hanging out on a boat called the Well Hung, surrounded by scantily clad women, guzzling alcohol, playing bongo drums, and draped in a live boa constrictor. He’s a beloved, native eccentric who is happiest surrounded by scum and sex, as opposed to the expansive, Miami villa housing his devoted wife Minnie (Isla Fischer), strait-laced adult daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), and their vast, inherited fortune. Moondog is a celebrated writer long past his prime, marked by his long, greasy hair, sun-kissed skin, clip-on shades, and perennially shirtless body, who thrives as a bottom-feeder in the Florida Keys. But Moondog isn’t burned out — he’s only ever burning.
With its candy-coated cinematography drenching the world in shades of seafoam green, bubblegum pink, fuchsia, cerulean, and violet, The Beach Bum is saturated in color like a Lisa Frank-inspired neon fever dream. The film carries you along its effervescent atmosphere guided by the pleasure-seeking Moondog, who seems to want us to have as good a time as he’s having. Moondog can never have a bad time, even in the wake of Minnie’s tragic, premature death, and the loss of his financial stability, and the alienation from his daughter and her “limp dick” husband; and even being sentenced to a year in rehab after trashing — with the help of a parade of homeless people — his former mansion home, which he’d been barred from.
Moondog has to, in his own words, “go low to get high,” so, in his darkest circumstances, he is only ever reaching for the next glimmers of light. You see, just as Moondog loves to soak himself in the muck and the mud, among the salt of the earth and the saltwater expanse that lays ever before him, so too, is The Beach Bum permeated by cynicism just as it is by carefree, bohemian warmth. Part of Moondog’s monologue to the interviewer isn’t even his — it’s a quote from author J.D. Salinger — but that’s not the first time he has plagiarized someone else’s work on his mostly undaunted path to success. The Beach Bum exhibits an irreverent, nihilistic behavior that matches that of its protagonist.
On the night of his daughter’s wedding, Moondog discovers — though he had had his suspicions — that Minnie has been cheating on him with their family friend, Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). Moondog proceeds to get appropriately fucked up after seeing the two of them share a passionate kiss, and he vacates the afterparty. But the equally trashed Minnie, knowing and loving her husband more intimately than any embrace she’s shared with Lingerie, leaves to meet Moondog at a bar somewhere nearby.
Buoyed by her delicate voice, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” carries the two intoxicated lovers to Minnie’s accidental demise by drunk driving. From there, we learn that Minnie had been holding tightly onto an uncanny suspicion that she would die before her reckless husband, as foretold to her by a psychic, and without Moondog’s knowledge, Minnie had it planned out in her will to keep her vast family fortune from him until he pulls up his bootstraps and writes the next great American novel that he’s been slowly chipping away at in fits and spurts between his various acts of debauchery.
This throws a wrench into Moondog’s life, which despite his own literary success has mostly been kept afloat by his wife’s money. This has allowed him, up to this point, to indulge in the vices he allegedly requires for artistic inspiration. So, without them, he lashes out — when asked by his daughter why he destroyed his own home after being cut off from Minnie’s money and their mansion, as he awaits the bus to take him to his court-sanctioned rehab stint, he replies, “I dunno…boredom?”
He continues on his path of disillusioned destruction by breaking out of rehab alongside the pyromaniac paint-sniffer Flicker (Zac Efron), a vape-smoking delinquent marked by a Bluetooth headset ever in his ear, tiger-striped facial hair, and the widest-leg jeans possible. Sometime after they’ve escaped, they attack a disabled man on a motor scooter and steal his money. When Moondog exhibits guilt over their unwarranted cruelty, Flicker gets him back on track by explaining, in the only way a character like Flicker can, that “Christ was even a sinner, so we clean man.”
Herein lies the paradox of Moondog: death, pain, destruction, and suffering follow him wherever he goes, even if he’s not always intentionally inflicting it. He is constantly surrounded by morbidity — Minnie’s accident, his friend Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence) losing his leg in a shark attack, the random acts of violence he knowingly or unknowingly commits against strangers — and all the while he can’t help but feel his age as his young self clings to the periphery of his life like a ghost.
It’s the ironic consequence of Moondog’s carefree mindset, which hinges less on hippie love than negligence and distinctly bourgeois lack of empathy for other people. He knocks bystanders off boardwalks and laughs when they plunge into the water. He assaults “Limp Dick” at Heather’s wedding by grabbing his genitals to check his penis size.
And despite the focus on fun and living in the moment that he appears to preach, Moondog is constantly preoccupied with his mortality, looking back on old videos of himself reciting poetry and reflecting on his younger years marked by consistent success. “Ain’t that far down if we don’t look, right?” he asks Flicker at one point, a serene outlook on his path towards death that still bears a distinct notion of fear.
As if acting only as a glittering façade, the funny, blissed-out, ebullient film harbors a sickness underneath, just like its perpetually tranquil protagonist. Moondog’s fun-loving mantra cannot be separated from his own misanthropic malice — self-centeredness, carelessness, narcissism, and his deep distaste for his fellow man. “You know what I liked the most about being rich?” Moondog’s previously beleaguered agent Lewis (Jonah Hill) asks him after Moondog has finally sprung back into the arms of success: “You can just be horrible to people and they just have to take it.” Moondog laughs in agreement.
Thus, The Beach Bum has been pegged as “nihilism masquerading as a stoner comedy;” a kooky, doped-up testament to our cruel, meaningless world wherein men like Moondog can skate past consequences and fail upwards on account of their perceived genius. But that read of the film feels far too obvious, and there’s even a scene in which Heather says this as directly to her dad as if she’s saying it to the camera when explaining to him that his genius — not just love — made Minnie stay by his side: “That’s why you’ve always been able to get away with everything, Dad.” Nihilism is a school of thought that negates aspects of life generally held to be true, such as knowledge and existence, and holds the grim belief that life has no meaning and people have no purpose. Which isn’t really what The Beach Bum encapsulates.
The film flirts with nihilism but is more aligned with “the Absurd.” In philosophy, the Absurd refers to the clash between human beings’ inherent desire to find meaning in life and our inability to do so with true certainty. Possibly the most prominent quote from famous absurdist philosopher Albert Camus is this: “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
Watching The Beach Bum feels like a manifestation of this confrontation with the irrational, as we preoccupy and even frustrate ourselves with searching for the reason why Moondog can evade serious repercussion and thrive off his mediocre poetry, which he’s twice admitted to plagiarizing. And it’s not just the viewers; characters in the film are searching for this answer as well. “How’d you pull it off?” now feels like a question desperately posed from the audience and from every other person in Moondog’s world as much as it does this one journalist. Yet all the while, Moondog is having the time of his life, and life only ever goes on.
How can our world be so cruel, so absurd, yet conspire to make a man like Moondog happy? Why can a guy like Moondog get everything he wants and get away with everything else while so much of the planet suffers? But from the absurd is born lucidity, and in the film, it is the understanding that there is meaning in meaninglessness. The ironic beauty — and absurdity — of The Beach Bum is that happiness can coexist alongside death, that optimism and nihilism are not mutually exclusive, that joy can be found amidst meaninglessness, cruelty, and cosmic unfairness.
There is no real “arc” for Moondog. He never has any sort of revelatory moment when we witness him repent on his past behavior. Moondog stays exactly the same. He enters the film a carefree vagrant, and he leaves it in a similar fashion, this time wearing women’s clothes and carrying a prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Not only does he not experience any internal emotional shift, but he doesn’t suffer any retribution for his actions either. He is never truly punished for who he is and what he does; he’s only ever rewarded for it. He is a black hole of consumption and greed, and yet he evokes joy from those lucky enough to know him.
Moondog does finally put his nose to the grindstone and finishes his book; he does subsequently regain control over Minnie’s inheritance. And then he sets it all aflame and burns it in the most bombastic fashion a guy like Moondog could: atop a brand new boat accompanied by fireworks shooting off in a deafening, colorful display behind him. Between Moondog’s commitment to finishing his memoir of poetry (titled, of course, “The Beach Bum”) and the burning of his inheritance, it might feel as if he truly has had a change of heart. But this is an intentionally misleading sequence. Moondog’s decision to rid himself of the wealth he once leaned on as a crutch is less an anti-capitalist act or disavowal of his upper-class roots than another display of total carelessness. Scorched cash rains down upon adoring onlookers who are only too eager to catch some of this ruined fortune, now robbed of any value to them.
Yet, at the eye of Moondog’s storm of insanity and self-indulgence, of contradictions, indifference, and recklessness, there can be found calm. Everyone who knows Moondog is happy to have known him and to have been a part of his world, even if only fleetingly. Rich, poor, and everyone in between celebrate when Moondog reveals his sweaty face and greasy hair from out of the shadows that he dwells in. Amidst the chaos and decadence and apathy and cruelty can be found beauty and meaning. Moondog is only one man, but he encapsulates the absurdity of the human condition. The magnificent paradox of being alive. “Being a part of what you did,” Lewis tells Moondog soberly, “maybe that means something now.”
“The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning,” said Camus.
“Oh, what a fucking blast,” says Moondog, as he floats off into the ocean.