Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In Theaters: SPRING BREAKERS (2013)

(US/France - 2013)

Written and directed by Harmony Korine.  Cast: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane, Sidney Sewell, Thurman Sewell. (R, 94 mins)

After writing the script for Larry Clark's controversial KIDS (1995), Harmony Korine became an indie icon of sorts with his own directing efforts, ranging from the repugnant (GUMMOTRASH HUMPERS) to the merely unwatchable (JULIEN DONKEY-BOY).  While Korine has his defenders, I've never made it all the way through any of the films he's directed.  The surprise with SPRING BREAKERS is not only that it's a Korine film in multiplexes nationwide, or that it has name actors, including the subversive casting of Disney good girls doing very bad things, but that it shows that Korine can indeed make a real movie once he decided to quit dicking around.  It's by far his most commercial film yet, though still not for all tastes and certain to alienate most mainstream audiences, but it's filled with such dazzling visuals and garish colors (Korine is working with cinematographer Benoit Debie, who's shot films by Gaspar Noe, Fabrice du Welz, and Dario Argento), propelled by some memorably quotable dialogue, some very Steven Soderbergh-inspired editing, and a propulsive, constant score by Cliff Martinez (another Soderbergh fixture) and Skrillex, that it's an exhilirating, adrenalized, and very cinematic experience, miles ahead of anything Korine's done in the past or even seemed capable of doing.  At 40, it's possible that Korine has finally grown up.  SPRING BREAKERS is unexpectedly inspired, frequently brilliant, and one of the year's best films.

For a while, Korine fashions the film as a hard-R MTV Spring Break special, with copious amount of alcohol, drugs, partying, and the requisite jiggle and gratuitous nudity.  But slowly, a style emerges and the plot kicks in as we follow four college students and their desperate attempt to get to Florida for spring break: wild girls Candy (Vanessa Hudgens of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL), Brit (Ashley Benson of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS), and Cotty (Rachel Korine of...uh, her marriage to Harmony Korine), and their more conservative, devoutly Christian friend and not-very-subtly-named Faith (Selena Gomez of THE WIZARDS OF WAVERLY PLACE).  With only $300 in spending money between the four of them, Candy, Brit, and Cotty decide to rob an all-night diner called the Chicken Shack, using squirt guns and sledgehammers (an extremely impressive continuous tracking shot where Korine and Debie keep the camera in the car with Cotty, who drives slowly in front of the restaurant as we see masked Candy and Brit's mayhem through the Chicken Shack's windows and then make their escape out of the side exit).  Faith doesn't approve of their methods, but wants to go to Florida, so off they go where it's a non-stop party until they get arrested in a raid at the motel.

It's here where the film really takes off, with the introduction of James Franco as Alien, a drug-dealer and aspiring rapper who bails them out of jail and comes off like a walking cliche:  he's got a teardrop tat, neck tats, cornrows, wears a gold grill, he's decked out in assorted bling, has a pit bull, a house full of guns, a grand piano on his back patio, and gets an epic "Lookit my shit!" monologue that must be heard to be believed ("I got shorts!" and "I got SCARFACE on repeat!  Constant y'all!"  "See these guns?  See these Franklins!  Lookit my shit!").  Uncomfortable among Alien and his gangsta friends, Faith catches the first bus home but the other three become partners in crime with Alien and get involved in his turf war with former friend and now rival Archie (Gucci Mane).  Alien calls this area his home and doesn't have much use for the throng of spring breakers ("every spring, the scum comes"), but he finds kindred spirits in Candy, Brit, and Cotty after a bizarre KILLER JOE-esque scene where Candy and Brit make Alien fellate two loaded guns at once.

SPRING BREAKERS is a surreal, hypnotic fever dream that may not exist in any kind of reality (it doesn't seem plausible that Faith, despite her willingness to drink and get high, would hang out with the other three), and even in their criminal exploits, the girls are constantly saying "It's just like a dream" or "It's just like a video game."  While the plot itself likely isn't meant to be taken seriously--though there could be an argument made about Korine's misanthropic world view and the girls being coddled, overprivileged, and spoiled, with no idea of the world they're entering--the film is so well-crafted and compelling just on a visual level, with no shortage of audacious "Why the hell not?" set pieces like Franco's haunting piano rendition of Britney Spears' "Everytime," Franco's instant-classic monologue, and, well, everytime Franco's on screen really.  It's easy to mock Franco when he does his "James Franco" things, but it's a performance like the one he turns in as Alien that justifies the hype he was getting as far back as his days on FREAKS AND GEEKS.  Perhaps recognizing that there was only so far he could take the "Disney girls gone wild" element (Gomez doesn't strip, but the other three do nudity, and Hudgens and Benson have a swimming-pool threesome with Franco), Korine essentially lets Franco take center stage, and it was probably a smart move.  In short, nothing Korine has done before has indicated what he accomplishes with SPRING BREAKERS, managing to deftly balance style, swagger, downbeat drama, dark comedy, social critique, and revenge thriller all in 90 minutes. From the visuals to the music cues (Ellie Goulding's "Lights" is the perfect closing credits tune for this), SPRING BREAKERS demonstrates a startling maturity of Korine from self-indulgent enfant terrible to a genuinely gifted filmmaker. The year's still young, but this is my favorite 2013 film so far.

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