Here's why you should see 'Spring Breakers' this weekend: It's the most outrageous movie of the year, and James Franco is genius in it
I’ve never had much patience for the “transgressive” avant-grunge indie-cinema noodlings of Harmony Korine. But Spring Breakers, his movie about four college women who go on a psychotic Spring Break bender (and, in vintage B-movie cautionary fashion, pay the price), is now threatening to become a crossover sensation in more ways than one. Without a doubt, it’s the first Korine movie that could at least be mentioned in the same paragraph with the word “mainstream.” Opening today on 1,100 screens, Spring Breakers will probably make more money in one hour than all of Korine’s previous films (Gummo, Julien Donky-Boy, Trash Humpers, etc.), added up together, did over the last 15 years. Then again, that wouldn’t be too hard — Korine’s films have basically been provocations falling in the forest without making a sound. The real crossover news about Spring Breakers is that last weekend, in limited release, it averaged a whopping $90,000 on three screens, indicating that it could be an indie smash in the making.
I won’t hold my breath or make any predictions. The widely publicized hook of the movie is that it features two former stars of the Disney teen factory, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, as two of a quartet of belly-shot baby-doll heroines in string bikinis. And so the film holds out the vaguely pornographic promise of good-girls-gone-bad exploitation — exactly the sort of thing that can help sell a lot of tickets. But if that’s all Spring Breakers had going for it, its potential success wouldn’t mean much. The film’s real hook is that it’s a darkly intoxicating and even rather heady trash-noir psychodrama: Beach Blanket Bingo meets Girls Gone Wild meets David Lynch. It doesn’t exploit our hedonism so much as it teasingly deconstructs it. For what the movie takes on is the whole consciousness of what “Spring Break” is truly all about. Yes, we know what it’s literally about — sucking beer through funnels, gyrating semi-naked on the beach, having sloppy orgiastic group hookups drenched in spray showers of Tequila. Korine showcases this stuff in quasi-psychedelic slow motion, and also with close-up voyeuristic precision, so that we see the sweat drops on the bodies, the details of excess. That said, the real subject of Spring Breakers is the whole middle-class ethos of Going Too Far — the defining youth impulse of Jersey Shore/frat-house/Spring Break America — and how that ritual has to keep being pushed further and further and further, until paradise becomes a form of hell.
The heroines, all lip-smacking hormones and middle-finger-in-the-air attitude, are college outlaws before they even head down to St. Pete Beach in Florida. To get the money for the trip, they commit an armed robbery at a local restaurant, a crime that seems no less violent for being staged with fake guns. Gomez plays Faith, a Christian youth group ingenue–turned–wild girl (deep down, she’s still a touch innocent), and Hudgens is Candy, a vixen without a cause. They think they know all about breaking the rules, and when they get to the beach, they learn to break a few more. In fact, they end up in jail for the night, and that’s what sets up their real education. Mysteriously, they’re sprung from jail, and when they walk out of the gates, they’re staring at the stranger who paid their bail: a drawling badass in gold teeth and cornrows, played by James Franco. His name is Alien, and it’s obvious that he’s got some very bad ideas in his head (though we’re not sure yet what they are). He saunters like a drug dealer and has the softly sinister come-on of a white hip-hop pimp. He hasn’t even done anything yet, and he’s mesmerizing.
Franco is such a well-known and even overexposed actor that the sight of him getting his gangsta freak on should, by all rights, be a novelty-casting stunt that the audience is one step ahead of. In too many roles (like, say, his current blockbuster turn as the title charlatan of Oz the Great and Powerful), Franco has been flaky and a bit self-adoring. But in Spring Breakers, he’s hypnotic. He doesn’t just strut around in elaborate tattoos pretending to be dangerous. He plays Alien with a true inner savagery. The character is driven by his own version of Spring Break fever. He’s out to have a demonic good time, and that’s why he assembles this harem of shapely jailbirds and manipulates them into being his partners in sin. In his gun-strewn beachside lair, he gets two of them into bed, which produces the film’s most extraordinary sequence: an S&M sex scene in which a gun barrel becomes an object of lascivious worship — not for the women, but for him. It may be the creepiest fetishistic moment since Blue Velvet, and what puts it over is the fearless intensity of Franco’s commitment. It’s Method acting as amateur porn.
It’s around this time that Spring Breakers finds itself a slogan, which is the repeated use of the phrase “Spring Break! Spring Break forever!” According to Harmony Korine in this movie, that’s what’s bedeviling America: not Spring Break as a yearly ritual but Spring Break as a state of mind, a kind of culture-wide addiction to if-it-feels-good-do-it excess. Spring Breakers is here to make the statement: For your own good, kids, stop trying this at home. That may sound like a conservative message, and in a way it is, but coming from Korine, who has finally figured out a way to give full voice to his inner bad boy, it’s a message that has the courage of its down-and-dirty convictions.
So who plans on seeing Spring Breakers this weekend? Who has already seen it? And what did you think?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman