After 20-some years of MTV beach marathons and another 16 of harder-core Girls Gone Wild sex-and-sand videos, I'd say director Harmony Korine is coming very late to the great American Spring Break bacchanal. And you have to wonder why he bothered, since he has nothing interesting to say about it—unless you feel that some foggy noodling about the Dark Side of the seaside frolics on view is somehow different from the dire warnings that worried parents have been imparting to their vacation-bound offspring for many, many years.
Spring Breakers, Korine's latest helping of dubious hipster bait, is either a brilliantly edgy deconstruction of the traditional beach-party movie (and if you disagree, what a lame-o) or it's a pretentious cash-in on the traditional nubile delights of that genre with a very silly narrative bolted on. There's wall-to-wall frat-boy decadence—lots of bare boobs and butts, the usual faux-lesbian lip-locking, and topless girls wriggling around under showers of beer—and I imagine somebody who's been living under a clamshell for the past few decades might find it all pretty racy. But then there's the story.
The movie affords an opportunity for three young Disney-affiliated actresses—Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), and Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars)—to scuff up their wholesome images a bit; and it allows Rachel Korine, the director's wife, to wander through another of her husband's films (she also featured in his Mr. Lonely and Trash Humpers). These four play a clique of bored college students stuck on campus during Spring Break because they can't afford the bus fare down to Florida. Their solution to this annoying problem is to equip themselves with ski masks, mallets, and water pistols and hold up a local restaurant. Which I suppose could happen.
Arriving in St. Petersburg (or maybe Sarasota, I wasn't clear on this), the girls find the Spring Break revels at full roar: all the beach action, of course, plus packed motel-room parties with lots of blunt-puffing, bong-sucking, coke-snarfling, wild topless writhing and young women passed out on bathroom floors. When police bust one such bash, our gals soon find themselves standing before a judge in their bikinis (in which they spend most of the movie). But a local slime called Alien (James Franco), has cast an appreciative eye on them, and he bails them out and takes them back to his big beach house, from which he deals large quantities of drugs and guns. Alien ("I ain't from this planet!") is also a rapper of sorts, and the most impressive thing in the movie is the total commitment with which Franco throws himself into this bizarro role. Resplendent in cornrows and jumbo hip-hop shorts, with maximum tattooage and a mouthful of grills, his Alien, honking away in thick street-dude patois, is a preposterous character. But at least he's entertaining, which is more than can be said for the rest of the movie.
Korine makes a fetish out of low-tech sloppiness. The movie is riddled with flashbacks to scenes we've already witnessed—presumably a necessity in order to pad out the film to 94 minutes. There's some tired sex-and-guns equivalence (Alien fellating a pistol barrel in mid-romp with two of the girls), and some rote commentary on the awfulness of capitalist society. (Alien has a dollar sign tattooed on his neck, and feels that his criminal success is just another aspect of the American dream—like that observation has never been made before.) There are also some scenes that seem to have been staged solely to boost the picture's weirdness factor: the sight of Alien sitting at a piano by his outdoor pool, waving around a pair of revolvers and singing the old Britney Spears hit "Sometimes," is certainly memorable, although probably not unforgettable.
As Alien draws the girls deeper into his dangerous lifestyle, some of them start peeling away. The first to go is Gomez's character (she's a devout Christian whose name, I'm afraid, is Faith). Another girl packs it in after being shot in the arm during an encounter with Alien's rival, a hood with the oddly un-hoody name of Archie (Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane). With his crew whittled down to two, Alien leads the remaining girls out on a last caper of predictably bloody violence.
Cinematographer Benoît Debie—who also shot Gaspar Noé's truly surreal Enter the Void—adeptly captures the saturated pastels of Florida beach towns and sunsets. But apart from all the hubba-hubba female flesh on display, that's about it. The story meanders and slumps, and the four girls never rise to the level of characters. Korine appears to be trying to hold on to the enfant terrible rep he launched with his powerful script for the 1995 Larry Clark film Kids; but he also seems to be trying to make a more commercial kind of movie this time out. At one point, after a particularly unpleasant experience, one of the girls puts in a call to her mom. "I feel changed," she says. "I just wanna be a good girl now." This could be a veiled message from the director himself. But at this late date, can we believe it?
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
This new Steve Carell comedy passes up any number of opportunities to be much funnier than it is. Carell and Steve Buscemi are a team of top Las Vegas magicians—Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton are their unflinchingly fakey names—who've been headlining at a big casino theater for 10 years. They're stars on the Strip, but their act has grown stale. (Their costumes have a riotous sparkle that ABBA might have found excessive, their flowing manes have clearly been over-styled in Hell's hair salon, and they still take the stage to the middle-aged strains of Steve Miller's 30-year-old Abracadabra.) And while Anton has remained a likable guy who still loves what he does, Burt, who's by now just going through the motions onstage, has become an egomaniacal idiot of an especially off-putting sort.
Steve Carell's gift for comedic warmth is wasted on such a sour character. Burt routinely insults his fans and his stage assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde), and he makes the adoring women he takes back to his sultan's-lair apartment sign releases for all the wild sexual acts he's about to perform on them. If the story were darker—if it attempted to explore the psychological swamps of such a showbiz sociopath—this might have been a more interesting movie. But it isn't, and it's not.
Conflict arrives in the person of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a preening street magician who represents a new, more hard-edged breed of performer. (He calls himself "the Brain Rapist.") Gray isn't so much a conjurer as an endurance specialist (think Criss Angel and David Blaine); when he wows a crowd of onlookers by lying down on a bed of coals, there's no illusion involved—he's actually barbecuing the flesh on his back. Very soon he has become the talk of the Strip, and a harbinger of Burt and Anton's downfall. Their blustery casino boss, Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), senses a new trend and decides to dump his veteran headliners. Anton heads off to Africa to do the magic he loves for starving children (we see one of them attempting to take a bite out of a video cassette he's given her), while Burt stays behind to get the comeuppance we know he must.
Burt's fall from fame isn't just quick, it's instant. After some brief traipsing around in search of a new gig, he's reduced to performing his tricks for the residents of an old-age home. There, however, he encounters his childhood idol, a legendary conjurer named Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). Will this retired eminence help salvage Burt's career by steering him back onto the true magical path? Never mind, that's not a question.
Carrey, with shoulder-length hair and a hide full of cool tattoos, hasn't had this good a role in years, and he feasts on it. His Steve Gray is a monster of bogus mysticism and insufferable condescension; he has several funny scenes, but you still wish there were more of him. He and Wilde—glowingly lovely and deftly funny—nearly walk away with the picture. Gandolfini is also a treat as a semi-menacing glad-hander, and Jay Mohr, in just a few brief scenes, manages to create a full character out of a lower-level striver on the Vegas magic circuit.
Director Don Scardino, a much-in-demand TV guy, hasn't tried for an outsize satirical style that might have better-suited the story (blandness reigns), and he apparently had no interest in mining the world of professional magicians for a distinctive atmosphere. Toward the end, Carell finally reverts to the sweet, self-deprecating charm we know so well, but the transition is too sudden. It's a trick that even this engaging actor can't quite pull off.