The Beach Bum is out this week. Get your tickets here!
Some actors seem destined to play particular parts. On paper alone, Matthew McConaughey appears born to play The Beach Bum’s lead role. Moondog is described as “a rebellious rogue who always lives life by his own rules” — aka the entire personality that McConaughey has spent more than 20 years cultivating. Even if the character doesn’t get arrested while playing bongos naked, it couldn’t seem like a better fit.
Moondog does play bongos sans-clothing in Harmony Korine’s comedy. Of course he does. His whole vibe is partying like it’s 1999. He also careens around with his blonde hair waving in the wind, looking like he’s drifted in on the last wave and drawling out lyrical, often nonsensical observations. He’s a self-described poet, after all. If Korine’s last film, 2012’s Spring Breakers, made a statement by casting squeaky-clean Disney starlets as bikini-wearing, gun-toting, drink-swilling, drug-snorting co-eds, his latest makes an impact by leaning into its star’s laidback stoner reputation. It’s the ultimate in typecasting, and it should come as no surprise that the writer/director penned The Beach Bum with McConaughey in mind.
Whether The Beach Bum is a great case of art imitating life, whether it’s McConaughey’s ultimate method performance, or whether he’s been auditioning for it for decades by simply being himself, it’s also an important role on the actor’s resume — his possible comeback yet again. The Oscar-winner hasn’t completely disappeared from view of late, but the McConaissance that started just eight years ago now feels like a distant memory. By playing a hyper-real version of the persona he’s become known for, McConaughey just might kickstart his heyday again.
In a case of fortuitous timing, The Beach Bum arrives hot on the heels of McConaughey’s last big flop, and one of the worst movies of his three-decade career. Five years after clutching his own Academy Award for Dallas Buyers Club and commanding the small screen in the first season of True Detective, his recent filmography resembles an ashtray for ill-thought-out decisions. None earn that label more than Serenity, a high-concept drama with a twist so ludicrous that it needs to be seen to be believed — and one goofily foreshadowed from the outset, but still giving many a viewer an exclaim-out-loud WTF moment. McConaughey plays washed-up Florida boat captain Dill Baker, who aptly drinks like a sailor, yearns to be reunited with his video game-obsessed teenage son, and finds himself caught between his obsession with a giant tuna and a murder plot to off his ex-wife’s (Anne Hathaway) brutish new husband (Jason Clarke). Naturally.
As well as being clunky junk that isn’t even trashy enough to be enjoyable, the result is as glaringly bare as the actor’s frequently seen ass. That said, at least Serenity is memorable, albeit for all of the wrong reasons. White Boy Rick, The Dark Tower, Gold, Free State of Jones and The Sea of Trees hardly earn the same description — whether McConaughey steals almost every scene he’s in, as he does in White Boy Rick, or feels more than a little lost in his surroundings, as he does in the other four movies. As a black-clad villain in The Dark Tower’s fantasy Western, a prospector in the thick of Indonesia in Gold, a farmer turned Confederate soldier in Free State of Jones and a suicidal American in Japan in The Sea of Trees, his presence rankles against everything around him. You can take McConaughey across the globe, back in time or into science fiction based on a Stephen King series, but none of these films could take the McConaughey out of McConaughey. You can use his name so many times that it loses all meaning, however.
It might seem contradictory to hope for a full McConaughey experience in The Beach Bum while tiring of his usual traits in other, blander films. But context has always been the key to his career. Armed with material that doesn’t just highlight his slick yet casual air, but challenges it and pushes it beyond his easy comfort zone, he shines. Saddled with scripts that merely call for his stock-standard attributes and nothing more, he turns in stock-standard performances. The latter first became prevalent in his 00s rom-com phase, where titles such as The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past clogged up his resume. It’s also been prevalent for the past four years, just in a different genre and without any meet-cutes.
The sly allure of The Lincoln Lawyer, the twisted tension of Killer Joe, the complex enigma of Mud, the oily sleaze of Magic Mike: that’s where McConaughey was at his best, and that’s where the original McConaissance sprang from. Bernie, The Paperboy and The Wolf of Wall Street also belong on the list, as well as the peak McConaissance part that was True Detective’s Rust Cohle — but not Interstellar, the film that flicked his resurgence from wired to tired. There’s a common element to every role that sparkled, going back to '90s pre-McConaissance highlights such as A Time to Kill and Contact. It’s the same element that’s missing in every part that fizzled. When McConaughey makes his familiar talents seem like a surprise, everything is alright, alright, alright. When it seems like a chore, he seems like one to viewers.
Enter The Beach Bum, and potentially the McConaissance 2.0. Time might be a flat circle; however so is McConaughey’s career, in a fashion. He gets older, but the essence of his best-fitting parts stays the same. It’s easy to spy the line between Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson, Magic Mike’s Dallas and The Beach Bum’s Moondog — they’re not different sides of the same coin, but different faces on the same side. Even if it turns out that Moondog veers too heavily into exaggeration, McConaughey in gleeful mode is preferable to by-the-numbers McConaughey, stuck-in-a-rut McConaughey, could-turn-in-the-same-performance-in-his-sleep McConaughey and bourbon commercial McConaughey.
Who knows if his next film, the Guy Ritchie-directed, Snatch-style crime-comedy Bush, will add more kindling to the McConaissance’s possibly reigniting flames. If it delivers McConaughey’s “alright, alright, alright” guise with feeling instead of formula, it’ll at least be on the right track.