Until now, writer/director Harmony Korine’s brand of artistic weirdness has been completely useless. Intentionally obtuse to the point of sloppy goofiness, his work has differed from student films solely because he wasn’t enrolled.
So how the H-E-double-hockeysticks is Spring Breakers the most compelling, disorienting and sublime film of this young year?
If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive got some of its chocolate in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights’ peanut butter, the result would be Korine’s latest. A volatile cocktail of drunken art-house fare and B-movie exploitation, trying to figure out the larger message framing this experience is tilting at windmills … topless, nubile windmills.
The plot is a gossamer thing, consisting of little more than a trip to Miami for four friends: Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine). Short on cash, the latter three pals decide the best way to finance their trip is to rob a diner. Faith is horrified to discover the cash’s origin, but not enough to turn down a bus ticket. The girls behave like incarnations of a pubescent boy’s imagination, constantly pantsless and cleavage-heavy, seemingly always a centimeter from lesbian experimentation. In Miami, such behavior is called “the tourist industry,” and Korine fires this into our eyes relentlessly. He succeeds in making bare breasts mundane and exhausting, turning sexuality into something like a chore.
When the girls meet Alien (James Franco), everything goes bat-shit insane. OK, more bat-shit insane. Alien is a white-boy rapper, gun runner and drug peddler at war with Archie (Gucci Mane). He is the incarnation of American excess, evident in his repeated admonition to “look at all my shit!” To be in Alien’s company is to court danger, and for some of the girls, that’s relationship they waited a lifetime to find.
Spring Breakers makes most sense as a visually opulent Grimm’s fairy tale, with less of a moral and more scary teeth. The girls aren’t girls so much as indistinguishable sexualized objects. Alien is not a human so much as temptation given flesh. Miami is not a destination so much as an imaginary cultural wasteland. Korine paints with neon colors, more obsessed with “the right feel” than a message. Nothing about this feels cohesive; it’s a chaotic combination of skin and sin. The girls are splendid, even if they blend to form one mega-girl. In particular, Korine’s wife, Rachel, who looks like Jennifer Lawrence and acts like Juliette Lewis, is devastatingly sincere. But this is Franco’s masterpiece. It turns out he’s neither stupid nor terrible; he’s just strange as hell and only comfortable playing completely bonkers. His inspired accent makes his disarmingly charismatic weirdo one of the classic and quotable characters in recent film. While Disney should lose his number, Korine should probably keep it.
Spring Breakers is uncomfortable and awesome, confusing and beautiful. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of leftover parts of other genres, sewn together by a madman, and in its own way, sorta brilliant.
Rating: Three-and-a-half out of four stars
— This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.