'Spring Breakers': Art-pop pleasure
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Too old to be an enfant terrible but still young enough to be an agent provocateur, 40-year-old filmmaker Harmony Korine seems to be hitting his aesthetic gadfly stride with his latest movie, "Spring Breakers." While this art film in mild exploitation-picture disguise doesn't exactly represent an out-of-the-park triumph, it offers sufficient pop-art pleasure and interestingly disquieting notes to be worth some not unserious consideration.
That may sound like damning with faint praise. I don't mean it to be, but what can I tell you? Since co-scripting Larry Clark's "Kids," the notorious 1995 downtown NYC art-world retread of "Blackboard Jungle," Korine the writer-director has gifted the world of cinema with various and sundry look-at-me salvos: the goofily opportunistic multiple gross-out "Gummo," the somewhat more poignantly impressionistic "Julian Donkey Boy" and the bad-celebrity-impersonation romp "Mister Lonely." It was this last film that moved a venerable observer at Cannes to observe in conversation, "This is a perfect festival film. Financed with festival money, pandering to festival critics and never to be voluntarily seen by any normal person." Continuing in that vein, Korine's prior feature, the homegrown "Trash Humpers," a VHS-shot chronicle of a bunch of misfits in old-man latex masks behaving badly in Korine's Nashville neighborhood, seemed to this viewer to be something of a practical joke on film critics (see Rotten Tomatoes to gauge how well it worked).
"Spring Breakers" is something different. It's a movie with a perennially American theme (you may remember the very first Hollywood picture set in the world of "spring break," 1960's "Where the Boys Are"), featuring a cast toplined not just by a few genuine stars, but two from the Disney Channel stable. Yup, this is the movie in which Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens "go bad" at the behest of arty A-lister James Franco, who plays an over-over-the-top white hip-hopper and drug dealer who calls himself "Alien." Gomez and Hudgens are one half of a small-town foursome who leave their glum college environs for the sun-drenched hedonism of Florida in March. Of the quartet (the other two girls are played by Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, the filmmaker's spouse), only Gomez's character, named Faith, can be considered driven-snow pure. She is absent when her three pals loudly rob the local Chicken Shack to raise the money for their adventure, an event they vividly recount for Faith in a parking lot during their sojourn.
Some online chatter on this movie has expressed concern that audiences might be so dazzled by the array of bikini-clad (and lesser-dressed) women and gun-toting bad-boys that they'll mistake "Spring Breakers" for real exploitation rather than art, but seriously, there's no way. The movie's too blearily but purposefully nonlinear, and one reason why is the repetition. Action is seen over and over from different angles, characters tell stories of events we've already seen enacted. Dialogue is iterated over and over, both directly by the characters and in voice-over, so that it takes on an incantatory quality, as in the girls' admonition before robbery to act like they're in "a video game" to Franco's Alien constantly drawling the movie's motto, "Spring break forever ... ." (This motif was, truth to tell, a big part of the strategy of "Trash Humpers," too.) As the same thing keeps happening, the movie presents dazzling widescreen imagery of consumerist concupiscence and wretched excess in a variety of textures, and the debauchery of this only-in-America rite of passage is offered up in an amused and even affectionate way. Korine's attitude to the gross youthful bacchanal is almost a shrug saying "Hormonal kids blow off steam the darnedest ways." But as the movie flows on, it grows darker, and when Franco's drawling gangsta informs his new girl posse (he bails the foursome out of jail after they're nabbed in a hotel raid) of a score to settle with a onetime mentor (a drug dealer played by genuine hip-hopper Gucci Mane), things start getting drastic. There's a pretty staggering gender-role-reversal bit involving Hudgens, Benson, Franco and couple of loaded pistols the girls put into Franco's mouth. And then there's the bad-girl-power finale, which, among other things, makes some really disturbing observations about white appropriation of African-American pop culture narratives.
The movie actually works best when it's "saying" least, when Korine's neon-bright, rotting-from-the-inside imagery synchs perfectly with the meticulous and brilliant electronic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex. The nods to Britney Spears as the patron saint of the sexualized teenybopper are not inapt, but they also feel, again, a bit like critic bait. Whenever the movie makes some overt bid to display "content," it actually falters a bit. But let's give credit where due: For the most part "Spring Breakers" is a gas to look at and to hear, and it's easily Korine's most successfully sustained work. As they say (sort of) in third-grade book reports, I look forward to seeing his next work.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.