Published: March 14, 2013
“Just before the candy-colored apocalypse comes to Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” you hear the peaceable murmurings of a beach, of lapping water, calling gulls and playing children. They’re nice, these sounds of summer, promises of carefree, youthful pursuits like building sand castles and shrieking at waves. The first image of what looks like a beach party keeps the happy vibe going. Dozens, hundreds of gyrating, dancing young women and men are basking in the honeyed light — as the beat goes on and the smiles sour into sneers — though it becomes evident that they’re also marinating in a tsunami of beer.
The beer doesn’t flow, it floods: over heads, writhing torsos and the bared breasts that wiggle like puppies and wag at the camera like the middle fingers that more and more revelers raise. Welcome to the party, dude, Mr. Korine seems to be saying (or is he snickering?), now sit back, relax and enjoy the show. He proves an excellent ringmaster and a crafty one too. In “Spring Breakers” he bores into a contested, deeply American topic — the pursuit of happiness taken to nihilistic extremes — but turns his exploration into such a gonzo, outrageously funny party that it takes a while to appreciate that this is more of a horror film than a comedy.
If the laughter at times catches in your throat, well, that’s part of the queasy, transfixing experience that is “Spring Breakers,” which plays with some of the same ideas in Mr. Korine’s last feature, “Trash Humpers.” In that movie, shot on VHS tape, four characters in rubber masks run amok, getting down and dirty as they compulsively, even ritualistically grind their pelvises against anything — garbage, of course, included — in a creepy, joyless yet also amusing burlesque. In “Spring Breakers” Mr. Korine has traded in his plug-uglies for a far more seductive and commercially viable female quartet that includes two former Disney teen queens, Selena Gomez (as Faith) andVanessa Hudgens (Candy), along with Ashley Benson (Brit) and his wife, Rachel Korine (Cotty).
Introduced shortly after the opening bacchanal, the four play students at a nondescript school somewhere warm that’s ornamented with palm trees and bored young people smoking weed, hanging out, sometimes reading and even attending classes. Over a number of dreamy, elliptical scenes that slide from day to night and back, it emerges that the four friends want to go on spring break but don’t have enough cash. While Faith prays on her problems — “Are you crazy for Jesus?” her church leader calls out — the other three opt for a more direct approach: armed with squirt guns and a lady-sized sledgehammer, they go full-on gangsta and rob a restaurant. “Pretend it’s a video game,” one giggles. “Act like it’s a movie.” So they do.
There are consequences of a kind, but first: paaarty! The four later take off for spring break in St. Petersburg, Fla. There they join an invading army that has seemingly commandeered every inch of sand, surf and hotel. From rooms and halls these tanned, groomed, white-teethed paragons of American youth and orthodontics spill onto balconies and into pools, laughing and yelling as they drink, snort, dance, grind, thrash and jump jump jump up, moving together like a single pulsing organism. They’re beautiful and monstrous, enthralling and repellent. For those who don’t belong to their tribe (never wanted to, never did), they may be exotic, worrisome, frightening or representatives of the decline of the West in hot-pink bikinis.
Just kids or children of the damned? Take your pick. Mr. Korine, a pasticheur and cultural vulgarian (part Dada, part European art cinema, part MTV’s “Jackass”), isn’t interested in making up your mind for you. Instead he tosses out his ideas like puzzle pieces and lets you see how or if they fit. The women want to go on spring break and want to have fun, and he seems to want the same. He splashes on the gorgeous, gaudy color and bends the story line, adding brief flash-forwards and flashbacks that make it seem as if time were incessantly skipping forward and backward, almost swirling. Gestures, bits of dialogue and moody moments are repeated like old songs, like dreams, rituals and highlight reels.
Mr. Korine clearly digs frolicking with his visiting celebrities, and the actresses seem happy to do things that would make Uncle Walt spin in his grave. They’re almost giddy, at least at first, and given that both Ms. Gomez and Ms. Hudgens have put in time working for Disney it’s no wonder that they cut loose. In “Spring Breakers” they have the chance to simulate the behavior that feeds the tabloids without the humiliations and career-crushing price paid by the likes of Lindsay Lohan. For his recent, putatively adult role in “The Paperboy” Zac Efron (Ms. Hudgens’s co-star in Disney’s “High School Musical” series) played a scene in which Nicole Kidman urinated on him. The female stars of “Spring Breakers” get to shoot guns and hang out with James Franco.
The fantastic Mr. Franco, wearing grillz and long cornrows, rolls up with guns and a white Camaro convertible with red rims. His character, a rapper from “St. Pete” called Alien, is a hustler, dealer and self-anointed gangsta. He walks the bad-boy walk and talks the talk, but he’s strictly thug lite, a white caricature in a cartoonish masquerade of black masculinity. For the women he becomes something of a sleazy Prince Charming — not all the princesses are equally charmed — in a story that has metamorphosed into a feverish fairy tale. “Look at all my” stuff, he boasts, almost self-amazed, in a startling, deliriously funny riff on “The Great Gatsby” — except that instead of throwing shirts in the air he’s brandishing machine guns, bricks of dope, wads of cash, animal-print shorts.
Alien’s masquerade as well as his feud with a black gangster bring the film back to an earlier scene that indicates Mr. Korine has more on his mind than surface shocks. Brit and Candy are sitting in a class in which a professor is murmuring words like Reconstruction, war and African-Americans. One of them draws a heart and the words “I want penis” on some paper. They laugh and, as the professor keeps talking, one pantomimes giving oral sex. It doesn’t matter that they’re not paying attention to their history lesson. Because, at that point, they haven’t yet pretended to be gangstas and robbed the restaurant, giggling as they held a squirt gun to a black man’s head — playing thugs without the burden, without the history, without the cost.
Mr. Korine originally shows the robbery from the exterior and through the restaurant’s windows so that the assault, the women’s movements and violence, are seen inside a frame as if you were watching a film within a film. The whole episode looks preposterous, like a bad music video, and the women in their black ski masks just seem silly. Much later, when Mr. Korine loops back to the crime, he takes you inside so you can see the terrified customers cowering as Brit and Candy smash up the place, waving their “weapons.” The squirt guns are fakes, but both the women’s pleasure and the rage that pumps through the scene and increasingly through the film — feeding the excesses, the posturing and escalating violence like a poisoned river — feel eerily real, familiar and very American.
At once blunt and oblique, “Spring Breakers” looks different depending on how you hold it up to the light. From one angle it comes across as a savage social commentary that skitters from one idea to another — white faces, black masks, celebrity, the American dream, the limits of self-interest, the search for an authentic self — without stitching those ideas together. From another it comes off as the apotheosis of the excesses it so spectacularly displays. That Mr. Korine appears to be having it both (or many) ways may seem like a cop-out, but only if you believe that the role of the artist is to be a didact or a scold. Mr. Korine, on the other hand, embraces the role of court jester, the fool whose transgressive laughter carries corrosive truth. He laughs, you howl.
“Spring Breakers” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Gun violence and enough naked breasts to supply material for a second Seth MacFarlane song.
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Harmony Korine; director of photography, Benoît Debie; edited by Douglas Crise; music by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex; production design by Elliott Hostetter: costumes by Heidi Bivens; produced by Chris Hanley, Jordan Gertner, David Zander and Charles-Marie Anthonioz; released by A24. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes.
WITH: Vanessa Hudgens (Candy), Selena Gomez (Faith), Ashley Benson (Brit), Rachel Korine (Cotty), James Franco (Alien) and Gucci Mane (Archie).”