Monday, March 25, 2013

Spring Breakers (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Harmony Korine


Harmony Korine enjoys blurring the line between trash and art, and attempting to expose that the line the separates the two is a lot thinner than most people realize. A film like his Trash Humpers from 2009 does this almost literally. But what else can we expect from a guy who was once quoted as saying that he'd like to direct a minstrel show staring Tom Cruise? His latest film Spring Breakers seems to be made specifically for the cult following that is almost assured to attach itself to it in the coming years. The film is so incredibly aware of its nihilistic style that its hard to figure out whats an inside joke and what is just a blast of overwhelming dub-step cinema. And this constant imbalance that the audience is in works as Spring Breakers best and worst trait.

The film plays with the idea of "Spring Break" as the iconic event of college misbehavior that it has become. Beautiful images of St. Petersburg Beach in Florida are displayed throughout the film, contrasted with debaucherous activities of several college students doing drugs, drinking and just overall taking part in activities that may or may not insinuate terrible judgment. Its a place and a concept free of control and acceptable social behavior, and Korine documents this with a very intrusive camera that doesn't shy away from anything, whether it be substance-fueled sex or the robbery of a diner named The Chicken Shack. Korine does not feel the need to piece apart the importance of place and time, which is why time is such a relative concept throughout the film (there are many times when its hard to wrap your mind around all of these things happening in a single Spring Break).

The film follows four friends, suffering through the boredom of college life with only the dream of a booming Spring Break in Florida to keep them going. Two of them, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (Ashley Benson), appear to be totally free of any form of responsibility - to the point where its hard to believe they ever made it to college to begin with. Cotty (Rachel Korine) is a fearless follower of the two of them, but Faith (Selena Gomez) is a Bible-thumping practitioner of group prayer and church meetings. Under the influence of Candy, Cotty and Brit though, she's willing to follow them into dangerous places, equipped with skimpy swim suits. They don't have enough money to fund their vacation in paradise? Just knock off the local diner for all the cash you need. They pull off the crime without an ounce of regret and bathe themselves in the bills.

Once they get there, its not long before they're renting scooters and men in their underwear are spraying beer and champagne on their bare chests. Every place they go seems to be inhabited by people doing sloppy bong hits and prowling the night for (what one would imagine to be) unprotected sex. The four girls party so hard, in fact, that they end up in prison after a party they attend is busted by the police and they're caught with innocent expressions on their faces and cocaine on their noses. Once there, there's only one person ready to bail them out, a braided, gold-teethed rapper named Alien (a transformed James Franco) who also moonlights as a drug and arms dealer. Alien likes these four girls and is willing to help them out, but also would like them to perform some dirty work for them.

Alien does not enter into Spring Breakers until about roughly halfway through, and the film takes a definite narrative shift when he arrives. The film beforehand seemed all about documenting the out-of-control nature of "spring breaking". But with Alien, the story begins to revolve around his infiltration of the group and his attempt to corrupt them, only to find out that they're already more corrupted then he ever realized. Its almost like two separate films, fused together by a Korine's feverish eye for eccentric visuals. By the end of the film, it seems like most of the narrative was likely created in the editing room. I can only imagine the many migraines that editor Douglas Crise went through trying to piece together the footage that Korine gave him and turn it into a fully functional story.

But this deconstruction of the narrative is part of the fun that Korine is trying to have with you. If Alien seems too important a character to show up so late in the movie, then there are other characters that seem to leave way before we're ready to see them go. Narrative choices are made seemingly at random and conventions are subverted, well, because. And its this kind of experimenting that makes Spring Breakers a fascinating cinematic experience and a maddening one. But what does it all add up to? Korine has always seemed to be a prime supporter of throwing things at the wall (or, in this case, the camera) and seeing what sticks (or, in this case, what looks pretty). That the up and down storyline is sewn together by an intoxicating visual aesthetic makes up for a lot of the film's biggest narrative flaws.

There's something very gimmicky about making a film in which High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens draws a penis with a magic marker and then licks the tip. Then taking Disney-made star, and former Beiber girlfriend, Selena Gomez and have her be caressed by a pool hall scumbucket. The cherry on top is Franco, so over-the-top as Alien (based loosely on Houston rapper Riff Raff), that you begin to wonder if he's in on the joke - though all guessing should probably be thrown away in a scene where he fellates a gun silencer. Whether or not Korine respects his stars is part of the fun, but there were times when Spring Breakers' conceit wore thin for me. It's visual and audial motifs are repeated over and over again, which begs to be explained but seems only in place to make the film even more frenetic then it already is.

It's easy to watch a film like this and dismiss it as pretentious garbage, but I also don't think its unfair to see it as a 2013 version of Easy Rider. The film's moral compass is a bit all over the place and truth is, is that it probably falls somewhere between the two. And I also think that Harmony Korine enjoys sitting in that grey area. I think he enjoys making a film that has been essentially ridiculous for forty-five minutes and then throw a corn-rowed James Franco into the mix. And if that's not enough, an hour in, we get to see rapper Gucci Mane (fabulous ice cream scoop face tattoo in full glory) step in and attempt to act. There's a lot to untangle here, as to whether Korine made this as a true piece of art, or something to provide him with more coke money. I don't think its something you can really figure out after one viewing, but do I really have interest in watching this a second time? Jury's still out on that.

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