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The McConaissance Was Always an Illusion

Plus some other random thoughts about ‘The Beach Bum’

We should have known better. For years, one of Hollywood’s happiest stories involved the McConaissance, a brief, shining moment in which Matthew McConaughey seemingly put away childish things (or at least terrible rom-com roles) to focus on a series of serious performances that demonstrated his potential and his acting bona fides. Starting with 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer and culminating with his Oscar win for 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey seemingly chose art over commerce and validated our certainty that he had more in him than Failure to Launch. Before the miracle of the McConaissance, McConaughey was an easy guy to like in principle — easygoing, unpretentious, following his bliss — but hard to love in practice because he made such garbage. But whether delivering his fiercely committed comedic turn in Magic Mike or his equally convincing villainous portrayal in Killer Joe (which came out the same summer), this new McConaughey was a revelation.

It’s funny how audiences delude ourselves into thinking that actors’ career choices are in any way dictated by us. We trot out some theory about what a movie star should do with his life, and then we feel vindicated when that star, completely on their own, conforms with our private collective wish. For people who had gotten tired of McConaughey’s beach-bum shtick — our cultural image of him frozen as that dude playing the bongos naked — the new McConaughey felt like his penance to us, his acknowledgement that we were right and he was wrong.

In 2014, at the peak of the McConaissance, The New Yorker’s Rachel Syme dissected this societal demand that stars adhere to our narrative for them. “What moviegoers enjoy even more than an arc of redemption after a dramatic fall is a surge of energy after a period of prodigal wastefulness,” she wrote. “McConaughey’s recent trajectory … is a joy to watch. McConaughey seems to be tapping into something essential, remaining himself while stretching, getting older while staying the same age.” As someone who loved that period of risk and reinvention, I was as guilty as anyone of assigning meaning to it. McConaughey had grown! McConaughey had changed. Good for him for realizing that, and indirectly, proving me right that he could be doing better work if he just applied himself.

But here’s the thing about arcs of redemption: Eventually, they all bend toward disappointment. The Beach Bum doesn’t definitively prove that the McConaissance is over, but it’s a reminder that we were probably fooling ourselves all along. No, those performances from 2011 to 2013 really were great. But the desire to assign a deeper meaning to them? Well, yeah, that was silly.

The Beach Bum is the new movie from Spring Breakers writer-director Harmony Korine, who casts McConaughey as Moondog, a writer, stoner and alcoholic who spends his day waltzing around the Florida Keys getting high and getting laid. Moondog is like a lot of Korine protagonists, who never feel at home in the world — they have to forge their own path and flout society’s rules. And, of course, Moondog enjoys playing the bongos.

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As you might imagine, much of The Beach Bum’s humor comes from the fact that McConaughey plays Moondog. If things had worked out a little differently in the actor’s life, he could have been this guy, and McConaughey enjoys sending up his public persona. I will never forget Tina Fey’s comment to Howard Stern about McConaughey when he hosted Saturday Night Live: “He was always taking his shirt off. He’s like, ‘Yeah, here’s my deal, I’m hot.’ We had a meeting one day at, like, 11 o’clock, right before the show, and he walks into the meeting shirtless, wearing this like old musty sarong. … He doesn’t smell great.” The Beach Bum is the guy Fey described, amplified.

Korine likes encouraging his actors to get outlandish: Think of James Franco’s whacked-out portrayal in Spring Breakers. But McConaughey isn’t exploring (or even exposing) something deep and dark about himself in The Beach Bum. Mostly, he’s coasting on persona — specifically, the grinning-doofus persona that the McConaissance was, supposedly, meant to redeem. And because we made unreasonable assumptions about him, it’s natural that we’re frustrated now that he’s seemingly let us down.

It’s worth noting that McConaughey himself tried to push back on this notion of a McConaissance. In a 2018 interview, he said, “That whole thing was much less of a 180 for myself than people seemed to think. There was this narrative of ‘then’ and ‘now.’ I didn’t get a new acting coach or take a new class. I just said, ‘Fuck the bucks — I’m going for the experience’ in the things I was choosing. … I quit trying to project how something would be received and decided to just be an actor for hire again. I love being an actor and going as deep as you can in a role, to really commit to the craft. I put my head down and went after roles that scared me.”

You can’t deny that The Beach Bum is a kind of risk — his performance is definitely about “going for an experience.” As much as I dislike the film, it’s miles more fascinating than Failure to Launch. But its failure irritates more, because it only serves as a wake-up call that believing in something like a McConaissance is fundamentally foolish. We’re so hungry for redemption narratives — we so want to think that people can change their ways — that we constantly set ourselves up for self-inflicted heartache.

But there’s also another way of looking at McConaughey’s recent stumbles, which include critical and commercial duds such as Gold, The Dark Tower and Serenity. Like The Beach Bum, those movies aren’t inherently uninteresting, but as opposed to the height of the McConaissance, they simply didn’t work. And that line that divides failures and successes can be awfully thin sometimes. In theory, the same energy that propelled McConaughey in Magic Mike (playing a weird, gonzo character) is there in his one-note work in The Beach Bum (playing a weird, gonzo character).

In other words, maybe we’re actually still in the midst of the McConaissance: The hunger to challenge himself remains, but his luck has simply run out. The drive to do good work is there, but not the worthy roles that could harness that drive. Even more powerful than a redemption arc is the mystery of how great movies come to be — and why potentially great ones end up as disasters. Instead of lamenting the end of McConaughey’s golden age, maybe we should marvel at the fact that it happened at all. Lots of pigeonholed movie stars want to reinvent themselves through superb, daring performances. It was McConaughey’s extreme good fortune (and ours) that timing and talent coincided to give him a great, short run. So many actors never even get that.

Here are three other takeaways from The Beach Bum.

#1. All Matthew McConaughey commercials are bad. Except this one.

One of the first nails in the coffin of the McConaissance was the sight of Matthew McConaughey doing Lincoln commercials. Big actors hawk products all the time, but there was something especially cringe-worthy about McConaughey lending his zen-surfer-bro demeanor to these tediously ponderous luxury-car ads. Never forget: McConaughey spent time staring at a bull.

Especially after winning an Oscar, McConaughey’s move to pitchman seemed extremely crass. And deservedly, he got roasted for it.

Undeterred, McConaughey has kept doing commercials: He’s in those equally goofy Wild Turkey spots. But I do want to stick up for his other campaign. I’m talking, of course, of Carl’s Jr.

The ads are strategically bizarre, shooting to go viral by capitalizing on McConaughey’s oddball persona. It’s all part of Carl’s Jr.’s attempt to move away from the hot-women campaign they’ve relied on for years to sell burgers. In the words of one burger executive, the self-consciously quirky McConaughey ads were meant to show that Carl’s Jr. remains “a brand that’s impossible to ignore,” which is the type of corporate-speak phrase that makes me want to die.

Nonetheless, the real pleasure of these spots is sharing them with someone who hasn’t seen them and doesn’t realize it’s McConaughey doing the voiceover. The person will always be a little skeptical: “C’mon, that’s not Matthew McConaughey. It can’t be.” The commercials are just irreverent enough that it seems like a stretch that an Oscar-winning dramatic actor would agree to be in them. But once the person discovers the truth, they’re generally just shocked — but they’re not annoyed. Because unlike those Lincoln ads, these commercials have a sense of humor about themselves. McConaughey’s having a little fun in these ads, and I won’t begrudge him that — unlike The Beach Bum, they’re only 30 seconds long.

#2. I hope Harmony Korine still gets to make ‘The Trap.’

For years, Harmony Korine was considered a fringe filmmaker whose low-budget indies were willfully weird. Movies like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy scared off mainstream audiences, while later works such as Trash Humpers proudly aspired to be cult curiosities.

When Spring Breakers became an art-house hit, it raised Korine’s profile considerably. And yet, it’s been seven years since he released a new film. The reason, in part, was because he had been pursuing a different project before The Beach Bum. It was called The Trap, and I hope that one day he’s finally able to make it.

A couple years ago, Nylon did a pretty extensive history of The Trap, including how close Korine got to shooting the film and some of the casting issues that got in the way. At one point, the ensemble was going to include Robert Pattinson, Al Pacino, Idris Elba, James Franco, Benicio del Toro and Gucci Mane. (Elba had replaced Jamie Foxx, who had previously signed up.) The movie was planning on going forward — according to Korine, he was “two weeks out” from shooting — when, as the filmmaker explains, “I had an issue with one of the actors — or there was an issue with one of the actors — and I had to replace that actor, but then the person I replaced him with, I had to wait on his schedule, and in that time another actor… it was like a domino effect. So they wanted to push the film back for another year, which I’m fine with. It’s not that I completely lose interest, but in that period I was just antsy.”

That was in 2016. It’s 2019 now, and while there’s still an IMDb page for The Trap, it’s pretty bare, although it does have a logline: “An ex-con is out for revenge against a gangster rapper and former friend who let him take the fall for a robbery they committed 14 years earlier.”

However, as mentioned by Nylon, The Hollywood Reporter had a far more detailed plot description back in 2015:

Rico (Elba) is at the top of his career and about to enjoy a triumphant night at the Grammy Awards when Slim (Del Toro) is released from prison after 14 years. Slim is determined to exact revenge after learning that Rico not only achieved fame and fortune but also married his girlfriend and raised Slim’s son as his own.

Slim’s plot includes recruiting a crew of Uzi-wielding surfers led by Max (Pattinson), as well as enlisting the help of Rico’s cocaine-happy manager (Franco). Pacino will play Slim’s parole officer.

Sadly, The Trap didn’t happen — at least not yet. But it definitely seems like the most commercial project Korine has ever attempted. Korine once described The Trap as “a big film — lots of actors, a pretty full-on, muscular genre film, kind of violent.” As a big fan of Spring Breakers’ neon-nightmare vision, I’d love to see what a violent genre film looks like from him.

#3. Which of these is NOT the name of a character that Snoop Dogg has played?

Snoop Dogg is a 17-time Grammy-nominee who’s had three No. 1 albums and been part of 14 Top 10 singles. But from his earliest days as Snoop Doggy Dogg, he’s also acted, although he mostly just plays himself or some variation on his laidback-stoner, big-pimpin’ persona. That’s certainly true in The Beach Bum, where he plays a character named Lingerie.

For fun, I scrolled through Snoop’s IMDb page to check out all his different roles. Let’s just say I noticed a pattern in his characters’ names. So, it’s Quiz Time: Without looking it up, can you guess which of these Snoop Dogg characters is fake?

  • Alabaster Jones
  • Back Doe Johnson
  • Captain Mack
  • Ganja Claus
  • Huggy Bear
  • Lil’ Cannabis
  • Love Lord
  • Major LeGrande Bushe
  • Mr. Hightower
  • Nemo Hoes
  • Skinny Bone Jones
  • Slim Daddy
  • Smoove Move
  • Street Dogg
  • Willie Spearmint

And the answer is…. Lil’ Cannabis

Which means that, yes, Willie Spearmint is real. Snoop played that character, who’s an activist writer, in a 2005 drama called The Tenants. Dylan McDermott is also in it. I’d never heard of The Tenants before. After watching this trailer, I suspect I know why.