*WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Us and The Beach Bum*
Last weekend I saw Us and this week I saw The Beach Bum, and while these were both movies I have been anticipating I did not expect them to be in dialogue with one another. Watching any two movies in quick succession leads to comparison, but Jordan Peele’s social thriller and Harmony Korine’s tropical fantasy are a unique pairing in that they are tonally and aesthetically complete opposites, but they comment on the same subject and draw similar conclusions.
Us follows the Wilsons, a quintessential nuclear family living an upper middle class life. They’re on vacation at their lake house, having a good ol’ normal time. Gabe, played by Winston Duke with daddly charisma, tries to gin up family fun for his eye-rolling daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and monster-mask wearing son (Evan Alex), while Adelaide, played by Lupita Nyong’o with bottled anxiety, puts guard-rails on the fun with her protectiveness. Adelaide’s anxiety is vindicated when creepy red-clad, scissor-bearing creatures appear in their driveway. They invade the lake house and it’s revealed they’re identical to the Wilsons. We eventually learn this mirror-family is not unique to the Wilsons, but in fact each American citizen has a corresponding dopplegänger. They come from a network of underground tunnels and facilities where they were created as an experiment to control their “real” counterparts. The project was abandoned long ago, and “The Tethered,” as they call themselves, have been cursed to a life of mindlessly mirroring the motions of their above-ground counterparts. But they’ve had enough, and they’ve emerged to kill their above-ground counterparts and join hands to form a coast-to-coast human chain.
Writer/director Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out popularized the term “social thriller” and Us continues his now signature fusion of thrilling genre-filmmaking and pointed social commentary. Where Get Out is about race, Us is about class. The film opens with a well-off family yearning to be even more well-off, (their beach day consists of them resentfully judging their richer friends the Tylers, played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) before they’re promptly forced to reckon with their privilege. The Tethered are identical people but with different circumstances. Less fair and crueler circumstances. The Wilsons aren’t evil people, but they’ve flourished within a system that has caused others to suffer. Those who have suffered now come to the surface full of rage and determined to be seen and heard after decades of disenfranchisement. The Tethered’s human chain is described by a newscaster as a protest, and the film’s final shot is a landscape shot of the chain spanning miles of the American landscape and disappearing into the distance. Helicopters enter the frame- the world is watching. The previously invisible expense of privilege is now unmistakably visible.
Us takes place in Santa Cruz, California, and The Beach Bum takes us to the geographic opposite part of the country- the Florida Keys. Matthew McConaughey plays a man named Moondog, the titular “Beach Bum.” He’s a perpetually drunk and stoned, fun-loving maniac. This unhinged hedonist is a professional poet, mumbling spontaneous verses, sometimes his own, sometimes lifted from famous poets. The enigma of his bliss quickly solves itself when Moondog gets a call from his wife Minnie, played by Isla Fischer who, like every actor in this movie, is having a lot of fun. Minnie summons Moondog back to their *twist* mansion estate on mainland Florida for their daughter Heather’s (Stefania Lavie Owen) wedding. Yes, Moondog is a magical creature with no inhibitions or responsibilities, but he only survives on the millions of dollars his wife allows him. Like the Wilsons at the start of their film, Moondog is dangerously unaware of his privilege. “I forgot how rich we are,” he remarks upon returning to his palace of a home. The Beach Bum has a dreamlike music video vibe, something Korine has calls a “liquid narrative.” There aren’t scenes so much as absurd moments and beautiful images strung together more like songs in an album than scenes in a film. Korine creates an experience of mood rather than a straight narrative. All this is a continuation of the aesthetic sensibilities Korine established in his previous film Spring Breakers. Chris has written that Spring Breakers follows the Hero’s Journey, (an archetypical story structure that applies to ancient tales and modern films alike) and The Beach Bum also adheres to a deceptively traditional template. Moondog’s “call to adventure” comes when he suddenly loses access to his millions. The only way to unlock his fortune is to complete his next book of poetry- something he’s been kinda sorta not really working on for a long time. In the Hero’s Journey the next step is the “refusal of the call” followed shortly with accepting the call and “crossing the first threshold.” Moondog never stops refusing the film’s call. He’s presented with the opportunity to clean up his life and reconnect with his artistic productivity, but instead he answers a different call- his own personal call to continue his lifestyle no matter what. The endless party evolves into a grimier, more homeless hedonistic lifestyle, and Moondog doesn’t seem to notice or care about the difference. He perseveres in his quest to do nothing. This fantasy world cooperates with Moondog’s ambitions of beach bummery, allowing him to slip from from one adventure to the next free of consequence.
Like Spring Breakers, The Beach Bum is undeniably satirical but simultaneously invites the audience to indulge in the satirized subject. Moondog is privilege incarnate. He behaves reprehensibly but he mostly receives praise. Early in the film a man stands on a dock playing the tuba. Moondog casually shoves the man and his 30 pound instrument into the water. The surrounding party erupts with laughter and cheers! When Moondog’s literary agent (played by Jonah Hill with a questionable southern drawl) half apologizes for sexually harassing his daughter, Moondog brushes it off like it’s no big deal. But the film isn’t really critical of Moondog, instead it immerses you in his mindset.
Peele and Korine both tackle the subject of economic class, and their angle on the topic can be deduced by their genre of choice. Peele’s horror film explores the fear of discovering your comfort is at the expense of a stranger’s suffering (a stranger who is just like you). It depicts the dread that someone out there is owed something, and that you might be the one who has to pay up. Were it told from the Tethered’s point-of-view Us would be a revenge fantasy where the victims rise up and take the world back from their oppressors. By centering the story around the unwitting oppressors, Peele’s elegant metaphor foregrounds systems. The film suggests inequality is not born of mean rich people stepping on nice poor people, but of a societal structure that allows some to succeed and and leaves others behind.
Korine’s film is harder to attribute to a single genre. It’s been marketed as a stoner comedy, which definitely tracks. It also reminds me of a romcom, especially the low-stakes wealth porn of a Nancy Meyers movie (not a dig, I like a lot of Nancy Meyers’ movies). Unlike Peele, Korine isn’t trying to lift the curtain to reveal the system’s ugly underbelly. Instead he kinda points out that the curtain is velvet and cheetah print, invites you to rub your cheek against it and asks, doesn’t that feel nice? Isn’t that kinda crazy? He immerses you in the reality bending effect of a few million dollars. He invites you to enjoy the hedonistic, consequence free world of Moondog. The film pulls the audience into Moondog’s orbit and has you believe he’s the spiritual genius he thinks he is. It’s only when you think about it, just a little bit, that you realize how Moondog is only empowered to be this way, and be celebrated for it, because of his outsized amount of privilege.
I give Us 9 scissors out of 10 screaming Tim Heideckers.
I give The Beach Bum 9 bongos out of 10 McConaughey buttcheeks.
Jordan Peele and Harmony Korine should absolutely team up and make a movie about Moondog’s Tether coming for him.