Trip to Nowhere
‘The dark heart of shiftless American youth’ just got darker.
Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
I won’t say Spring Breakers is the worst movie ever made, because it should bear no distinction, even one designed to indicate the depths of its wretchedness. This dreadful waste of time scrapes the bottom of the pop culture barrel so severely that, by the end of its 80-minute running time, even the dregs have found a way to escape.
Four college girls from Florida go to St. Petersburg for spring break. They knock over a restaurant to get the money. They stare at the water, ride around on scooters, sit around a parking lot, do drugs. They are arrested and then bailed out for no reason by a white-trash rapper-dealer played by James Franco (who overacts as horrendously here as he does in Oz the Great and Powerful). One girl goes home; the other three hang out with Franco. He ends up declaring his love to two of them, after which they have several threesomes. The third girl is shot in the arm by a rival drug dealer. She goes home, too. James Franco decides to kill his rival. He and the two girlfriends travel to the drug dealer’s house in a motorboat. Franco, the experienced gangster, gets killed instantly. But the two girls go on to kill everybody at the drug dealer’s house with machine guns. The end.
This summary provides a measure of linear coherence to a movie that doesn’t actually have any. Most of its running time is taken up with shots of teenagers dancing and drinking and smoking bongs. It’s almost excruciating; but again, if it were truly excruciating, that would imply there was something exceptional going on here. In truth, Spring Breakers is notable only for the utter filmmaking incompetence displayed by its writer-director—the almost perfectly misnamed Harmony Korine, who has made several unwatchable avant-gardish films before this. Korine didn’t really bother to write a screenplay for this movie, so what little dialogue it has is repeated four or five times, what with flashbacks and flash-forwards. Thus, we hear the first departing girl saying, “I want to go home,” and, “This isn’t what I signed up for,” over and over and over.
I have nothing against repetition per se. Try going to a Jewish religious service sometime—there’s so much of it you’d think the Almighty only hears prayers in triplicate. But “I want to go home” isn’t exactly Macbeth saying “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Besides, in a movie, someone can say “I want to go home” and then there can be a cut to a bus pulling out, and basta—in and out in 10 seconds. In Spring Breakers, after the endless incantation of her desire to leave, the girl boards a bus, and sits on the bus, and looks out the window of the bus, and lies down on two seats on the bus. This all totals about five minutes of the movie’s running time.
The defenders of Spring Breakers say the movie has an incantatory quality to it, that its repetitions are purposeful because they highlight the banality of its characters. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, a decent prose stylist but easily the most ludicrous critic ever to write for a major newspaper, wrote with a straight face of Spring Breakers that Korine’s “transgressive laughter carries corrosive truth,” and that his movie is actually a study of “the pursuit of happiness taken to nihilistic extremes.” How utterly absurd. All exploitation movies, from Reefer Madness (1936) onward, purport to criticize the ways of life over which they are simultaneously salivating. A well-made exploitation movie succeeds in finding ways of working around this; a bad one makes you aware of its hypocrisy at every moment.
Spring Breakers is soft-core porn without a core, a look into the dark heart of shiftless American youth that primarily reveals its own dark heart; it is a portrait of white-trash racists that proves to be more racist than most white trash. Most interesting, perhaps, is how it has positioned itself in the motion-picture marketplace. Spring Breakers is a story of corruption whose marketing strategy depended on seducing squeaky-clean Disney Channel and ABC Family starlets (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson) with the promise of big-screen stardom into ludicrous amounts of wildly gratuitous nudity and on-screen drug use.
Rather than using their nubility as a lever to lift them into A-list pictures, as Anne Hathaway did when she went from the inanities of The Princess Diaries to a nude scene in the Oscar-bait Brokeback Mountain, the girls of Spring Breakers have earned themselves a ticket to midnight-movie notoriety—just as Elizabeth Berkley did when she segued from the brain-dead kid sitcom Saved by the Bell to the brain-melting fiasco called Showgirls. Elizabeth who? you ask. To which I reply: Exactly.
The only performer who will emerge from Spring Breakers with her career intact is Emma Roberts, who dropped out before filming began owing to “creative differences that couldn’t be resolved.” Smart cookie—though I don’t know how she could have had creative differences with Harmony Korine, since he has no creativity with which anyone could have a difference.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
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