The world probably didn’t need an arty ogling/condemnation of spring break, but then again writer/director Harmony Korine isn’t in the business of giving the world what it wants. He’s the enfant-terrible who wrote Kids as a teen, stapled bacon to a wall in Gummo, brought Dogme to America in Julien Donkey-Boy, and made whatever the hell Trash Humpers was supposed to be. He has a long and well-earned reputation for provocation. His films always aim to shock, yet have a sneaky and snarky intelligence beneath the surface that’s aware of the empty futility of such an endeavor. To call Spring Breakers Korine’s most accessible movie goes a step beyond understatement and yet all of his art house prankster wit remains, even just in the concept of him making a movie about spring break. The flick opens with gratuitous booty shots in slow motion and lingers on them for so long that it goes past the point of titillation and into a sad and uncomfortable place for viewers. It’s a mission statement for the movie as a whole, which is at once a glorious work of trashy excess and a gentle mockery of said trashy excess. It’s not Korine’s best movie (that’s still Julien Donkey-Boy), but it’s a delightfully filthy dark comedy treated with an artful eye and sick wit that the subject matter doesn’t even really deserve.
A quartet of Disney princesses and Korine’s wife star as our bikini clad heroines (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgns, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine). They’re a group of horny, mischievous and bored community college gals that have grown tired of the baby-doll bong parties (actual scene) at their school. They want nothing more than to enjoy real partying of a Florida spring break where all the dreams of a bonehead bimbo can come true. There’s only one problem, they don’t have the cash for the trip. Fortunately, that’s easily solved with some fake guns, hammers, ski masks, and a low rent diner begging to be robbed. The girls had never indulged petty crime before, but aside from Gomez’s quiet Christian (who’s named Faith to avoid confusion) they pick up the skills easily enough.
Then it’s off to spring break for a whole bunch o’ partying that comes to an abrupt halt when the gals are arrested for being at a cocaine fuelled romp that goes out of control. Fortunately, James Franco’s sleazeball, grill-toothed wannabe rapper/gangsta bails the gals out for inevitably illicit reasons. Gomez is freaked out by Franco’s appropriately lame named Alien and skips town, but the other three girls stay with their new greasy prince for a fantasy life of group sex and armed robbery. All is magical in their permanent spring break until Franco’s former friend/crime mentor (played by rapper Gucci Mane) gets jealous and kicks off a machine gun feud. There’s only one way for this story to end and it ain’t pretty…not that it’s been overtly pretty until that point, of course.
What you have is a party-movie-turned-crime-romp played out with its tongue dug delightfully into its cheek. Korine isn’t a filmmaker above taking himself seriously, but this tale of excess is not one of those projects. Even the casting of family film favorites Selena Gomez (Barney and Friends), Vanessa Hudgens (High School: the Musical), and Ashley Benson (Bring it On: In it to Win it) feels like a subversive in-joke. For the actresses, it was a chance to shed their Disney shackles and reach for artistic credibility. For Korine, it was a chance to actually make a movie with a shot a turning a profit. Everyone comes together for filthy fun and the results show on screen.
Gomez, Hudgens, Benson, and Mrs. Korine might not have any acting awards in their future, but they all clearly had a blast and proved to be far better at that whole “acting thing” than expected. Harmony Korine on the other hand proved he could provide straight entertainment along with his trademark visual excess (with a little help from Gaspar Noe’s genius cinematographer Benoit Debie), trailer park pop art production design, and twisted sense of humor. Everyone slums it and everyone wins, with top honors of the production going to James Franco. The actor/filmmaker/author/whatever can either appear vacant on screen (see Oz the Great and Powerful) or deliver surprisingly eccentric character work. Thankfully Spring Breakers falls into the latter category and might just be Franco’s most entertaining and endearing creation as an actor. Armed with cornrows, a grill, and a voice that slithers out words, Franco’s Alien commands the movie from the moment he walks on screen and locks down the ironic tone that Korine seeks. His bedroom rant seducing the ladies by asking them to “look at my shit” as well as an piano performance of a Britney Spears classic are the comedic highlights of the movie and when it’s over you’ll wish that Franco could deliver this kind of cracked performance every time he stepped in front of a camera.
What Spring Breakers is supposed to mean is a reasonable question. Is this a mirror mocking Girls Gone Wild culture by reveling in its filthiest excesses or just another piece of party movie trash with arty cinematography and clever stunt casting? Well, it’s hard to say, but given the intriguing outsider art that Korine has specialized in before this production I think it’s fair to give him the benefit of the doubt. If nothing else, it’s Korine’s most entertaining movie and it’s nice to see the filmmaker dabbling in populism without losing his voice. While it might be derailed somewhat by disappointing yet inevitable Scarface-lite conclusion, Spring Breakers is a gleefully subversive romp that defines the term guilty pleasure. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, but given the subject matter it’s hard to imagine anyone making a better version of this movie. Everyone involved should be equally proud and ashamed, which is the exact feeling that anyone should have after a successful spring break.