Spring Breakers (2013)
Harmony Korine is the kind of filmmaker who I typically avoid. I haven’t liked a single one of the movies the man has written or directed. This list includes Kids, Julien Donkey-Boy, Trash Humpers, and the detestable 1997 film, Gummo, possibly one of my most hated films. The man has become an expert on depicting juvenile delinquents and the excesses of youthful folly, so I wasn’t surprised that his latest writing/directing effort, Spring Breakers, followed suit. I was surprised at the names he was able to attract to the film. Former Disney Channel starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, as well as ABC Family’s Ashley Benson, join Rachel Korine as a foursome of gals who long for the pleasures of a spring break getaway. They scrimp and save for months, plus also rob a restaurant, and take their sojourn to the sunny beaches of Florida. The girls run afoul of the law and are bailed out by rapper and wannabe gangster Alien (James Franco). Living large, and with handy access to a plethora of weapons, the girls get involved in the crosshairs of a turf war, but they won’t let anything bring down their good times.
When you break it down to its trashy molecular core, Spring Breakers is like an exploitation film as directed by Terrence Malick. Allow me to explain, dear reader. Much like that hallowed art house filmmaker, the plot in Spring Breakers is really a wispy, abstract concept, and the film is prone to repetition and redundancy, a triptych for the senses. There’s plenty of overlapping dialogue that circles back and repeats itself, images that bleed into one another, and a plot that generally takes its cues from MC Skat Kat, namely moving two steps forward and then two steps back (is this reference too dated?). The rote dialogue, when not indifferently profane and nonsensical, is usually variations on, “Spring Break. Spring Break forever.” I’ve just given you about a fifth of the entire movie’s dialogue. It may have just been my theater’s sound system, but I found much of the dialogue hard to hear and decipher. Perhaps it was Korine admitting that the things his characters say weren’t worth straining to hear. As expected, this can get rather frustrating to sit through. It’s not so much a movie as an experience meant to wash over the audience. Hence the nonstop dubstep score, provided by Skrillex, and the crashing imagery of tawny exposed flesh, gyrating bodies, neon lighting, fellating gun barrels, and excessive inebriation, all meant to bring the spring break experience to the consumer, that is, if most people’s spring breaks involved lots of illegal activity. If Malick’s movies are meant to serve as religious experiences, then consider Spring Breakers to be the equivalent of ingesting GHB.
Let’s talk about that paucity of characterization. Besides Faith (Gomez), a name a bit too on-the-nose for this sort of enterprise, there is zero I can say about ANY of the other three girls. They are completely interchangeable. They have no defining characteristics beyond their simple geographic placement within the camera frame. That’s it. When Faith ditches the movie at the halfway mark, having the good sense to realize her supposed friends might not be the best influence, I wanted to go with her. I didn’t want to be left with these vacuous and annoying characters. It’s pretty clear the contempt that Korine has for his own female characters, constantly serving them up for ridicule. It makes the whole movie even less appealing. We’re not supposed to like our heroines but it gets uncomfortable when the director seems to be constantly shaming them, rubbing our faces in how awful they are as people. With an absence of characters you care about, and a plot that feels like it keeps circling back, there’s precious little to hold onto before you become anesthetized to Korine’s exploitative navel-gazing.
After Oz the Great and Powerful I didn’t think I would utter these words, but thank God for the presence of James Franco. The man is so fully committed to his gonzo portrayal of a white trash wannabe gangster that you are downright thankful when he takes over the movie halfway in. At least we don’t have to spend as much time with our empty-headed trio of ladies. Franco, perfecting an ominous drawl, is a cartoon of misplaced machismo, living the “gangsta” life he’s seen parroted in pop culture (he has Scarface running on a constant loop on his TVs). He provides a jolt of energy to the movie, a second wind, and thankfully pushes the girls into greater conflict than part-to-party binges. He brings a real sense of danger to the film, and the descent into a criminal path couldn’t have come soon enough for me. It’s such an enjoyably whacked-out performance that I wouldn’t be surprised if Franco may even be considered for some Best Supporting Actor nominations.
There’s something just so tiring and depressing about watching people trying to chase a hedonistic high rather than, you know, live their lives. In this warped sense of thinking, the all-encompassing term of “partying” is meant to be the divine state of being and anything else falls by the wayside of significance. I understand the movie is exposing a shallow and empty way of life but it can still be tiring to watch nonstop. You become numb to the onscreen antics. You become numb to the free-flowing spirits, profanity, and gratuitous nudity (there were literally six topless ladies onscreen before a word was spoken). Watching Spring Breakers, you have two options: give yourself over to the trance-like, self-destructive youthful fever-dream or sit solemnly, objectively observing how the outrageous become routine, and become dead inside.
As much as it pains me to admit, being a non-fan of Korine’s movies, there are a few moments in the movie that are actually surprisingly effective. The first is a hasty robbery of a small restaurant. We stay in the passenger seat of the slow-moving car as it spins around the building, and in the background we see the escalation of events, the girls smashing breakables and terrorizing the few patrons. It’s one of the few visual decisions that felt, and here’s a word you won’t find anywhere else in relation to this movie, artistically restrained. There’s also plenty of forced irony in the movie where a character’s positive words will be counterbalanced by a visual contrast. Faith phones her grandmother and talks about her great time, even promising next year that she wants to take dear old granny along with her. Meanwhile, as the words play out, which will happen again at several redundant points, we see the girls engaging in behavior that would most likely not be granny-approved. Even if forced, and often redundant, it’s still effective, as is Korine’s hypnotic visual sensibilities. If nothing else, Spring Breakers is a good-looking movie with many pleasing visuals.
I think I understand why my critical peers have lavished as much praise upon Korine’s bacchanalia. They see a satire of this empty, nihilistic, party-all-the-time, damn-the-consequences lifestyle, the idiocy of youthful hedonism. The problem is that there’s only a handful of moments in Spring Breakers where I felt that Korine actually achieved satire, one of them being a montage of robberies set to a Britney Spears song (beforehand we saw girls holding guns by the barrel and dancing in a circle). Those moments that struck me as satire were few and far between, because what I mostly left with was just another exploitation film. If this were meant to be satirical, the girls would not get away with it all in the end. Korine may intend to stand back in some ironic judgment of his own movie, providing himself an excuse for the lackluster plotting and characters. Here’s the point: even if it was done intentionally, it still makes for a lackluster plot and characters. Saying, “I meant that all along,” is not an excuse when the rest of the film fails to live up to your stated satirical intents.
Allow me a moment to talk about the somewhat disconcerting treatment of, for lack of a better description, the sluttiest of our gals, Cotty, played by Rachel Korine. When I saw the last name of Korine I thought, “Is that the director’s daughter?” Harmony Korine has been in the film industry for almost 20 years, so it was a possibility, and oh what a disturbing thought that was. Some cursory research proved that Rachel Korine was in fact Harmony’s wife; there’s a thirteen-year age difference. It’s still uncomfortable that Korine would slot his own wife to portray one of the titular spring breakers, the only one from our posse who goes nude onscreen too (sorry skeevy Disney Channel and ABC Family fans). So when he’s slut shaming these girls, mocking them with contempt, directing their gratuitous exploitation, he’s also including his own wife in this distasteful characterization, making sure the camera has multiple opportunities to take in her exposed flesh. It’s like he’s serving up his own wife to the gods of spring break (a.k.a. young male ticket-buyers), and it just seems icky.
When Spring Breakers came to a merciful close, the college-aged guy behind me remarked, “That’s the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.” I replied, “Then you haven’t seen a lot of movies, have you?” Korine’s abstract, aimless salute to self-indulgence is a depressing experience that celebrates the worst in human beings, but weird it is not. I’m just tired of Korine’s schtick. He presents trashy characters, prods us to ridicule them, and then gives them a lot of empty space to do dumb things for an hour and half, ultimately going nowhere and accomplishing little. It just so happens that Spring Breakers, his most commercial and accessible film, has attractive, nominally famous actresses partaking in the nastiness this time. I suppose there will be some appeal to a small swath of filmgoers to see former squeaky-clean Disney Channel gals cutting loose, behaving badly, and playing against (manufactured) type. For me, the very casting of these ladies was another sign of Korine’s artistically bare ambitions. If he wanted to hold up the entire escapist spring break pleasure-seeking lifestyle for satire, then he needed to push harder. What’s on the screen is rarely satire. Instead, it’s just another careless exploitation film, replete with moronic characters we don’t care about and a plot that would be charitably described as, well, a plot. Even Franco’s calculated weirdness cannot save this film. Spring Breakers is a trip best avoided.
Nate’s Grade: C-