“The Beach Bum” contains so many absurdities that the act of singling one out can speak volumes — it’s a Rorschach test in the form of a Harmony Korine film. Perhaps it’s fitting that a writer would fixate on how Matthew McConaughey’s scraggly stoner, Moondog, describes his written work: “That’s great poetry,” he declares with a laugh that falls somewhere between a snicker and a tee-hee. He applies the same description to the memory of his daughter’s “bloody” birth while giving a toast at her wedding.
Korine’s characters describe the carefree Moondog as a poetic genius, which makes sense for a writer-director whose last feature, “Spring Breakers,” depicted a grimy James Franco in a similar light. Other Rorschach interpreters might refer to Moondog as the guy who smokes a blunt from between his wife’s toes, or as someone who gulps down Pabst Blue Ribbon-infused milk from his cat’s bowl.
“The Beach Bum” follows the Florida man’s misadventures for a meandering 95 minutes, resulting in an iffy movie that nonetheless allows the actor to shine in what might be his kookiest role yet. It showcases McConaughey at his McConaughiest. Yet, as intriguing as that may sound, the public hasn’t yet bought into the premise: The plotless comedy grossed only $1.8 million this past weekend, marking what several reports have deemed the weakest wide release of McConaughey’s career.
To make matters worse, the box-office bomb follows that of his last project, “Serenity,” which made just $4.4 million in its opening weekend after distributor Aviron Pictures decided that the movie, which also stars Anne Hathaway, wasn’t good enough to promote. Preceding that was a string of titles that most wouldn’t recall: “White Boy Rick,” “The Dark Tower” and “Gold.”
So what’s going on with Matthew McConaughey?
This didn’t seem to be the direction his career would take after he picked up an Oscar five years ago for “Dallas Buyers Club,” in which he played a Texas man in the 1980s who distributes experimental drugs to AIDS patients after receiving a diagnosis himself. The film earned around $27 million domestically but attracted positive reviews, many of which expressed surprise at what an actor frequently associated with commercial romantic comedies (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Failure to Launch”) proved he could do with a purely dramatic role.
The notion of a “McConaissance” went from floating around cinephile circles to firmly cementing in the public consciousness — perhaps McConaughey would find success as a consistent Serious Actor with a sprinkle of eccentricity, which his roles in “Magic Mike,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Interstellar” and HBO’s “True Detective” seemed to indicate. (He also began appearing in Lincoln car commercials around that time, which almost seem to parody his characters’ enigmatic quality and have since been parodied by the likes of “Saturday Night Live” and “South Park.”)
But the McConaissance met a slow demise after those projects, and the talented actor’s recent roles put a final nail in its coffin. To be fair, he never bought into the second-act narrative in the first place: “That whole thing was much less of a 180 for myself than people seemed to think,” he said last year. “There was this narrative of ‘then’ and ‘now.’ I didn’t get a new acting coach or take a new class. I just said, ‘F--- the bucks — I’m going for the experience’ in the things I was choosing.”
That motivation is clear as can be when it comes to “Serenity,” which ranks among the most confounding films released in the past year. (That’s saying a lot, given the proximity of its release date to that of “Alita: Battle Angel.”) Writer-director Steven Knight’s pulpy movie centers on McConaughey’s Baker Dill, a traumatized veteran who lives on an island called Plymouth and drinks way too much alcohol out of a mug that reads “World’s Greatest Dad.” He searches furiously for a single tuna named Justice, a fishing quest that takes up a great deal of real estate in a movie that’s supposed to be about Baker’s ex-wife (Anne Hathaway) asking him to murder her new husband (Jason Clarke).
There’s a massive plot twist that turns “Serenity” into an even nuttier movie, but “The Beach Bum” is where McConaughey, who was once arrested for marijuana possession while playing bongo drums in the nude, truly achieves his peak form. Moondog might not look for a fish named Justice, but he does dress like Guy Fieri on acid, trash his wealthy wife’s mansion with a ragtag crew of drunks and bust out of rehab with a panini-bearded Zac Efron. He smokes weed and dances on fancy boats with his friends Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) and Jimmy Buffett (Jimmy Buffett). He’s also an acclaimed writer.
While some critics embrace the film’s chaos, others find fault with its lack of a cohesive narrative. McConaughey is a reliable performer who brings life to both “Serenity” and “The Beach Bum” — after all, this is the guy charismatic enough to make all of America go, “All right, all right, all right” after he won an Oscar and referenced his “Dazed and Confused” character’s catchphrase — but his latest films seem to have lost the ability to please critics, as they did in the McConaissance era, or attract audiences, as they did in his rom-com days.
In a confused daze of our own, we come up with a final interpretation of a particularly memorable scene from late in “The Beach Bum.” Moondog laughs hysterically as, after a moment of suspense, he emerges on a lifeboat from intense flames of his own creation, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. If we’re to take Moondog’s relentless optimism to heart, we might also take this as a sign that McConaughey’s career will be reborn, as well.
That would be great poetry.