I’m pretty sure one day we’re going to talk about The Beach Bum as one of the greatest cult films of all-time and an outright masterpiece. That’s down the road, though. In the short term, I think we first have to figure out what exactly happened at the end. If you’re like me, you probably asked yourself, your friend, or a stranger one of these questions.
- Wait, Moondog really won a Pulitzer then blew up the money and ended up floating on the water like that?
- Wait, was all of that supposed to be Moondog having a bad drug trip?
- Wait, did Moondog die when the boat exploded? Or in the car crash?
There are probably some other theories out there, but to me these are the three primary ways we could potentially read the ending of The Beach Bum. It could have been as straightforward as it seemed. It could have been a bad drug trip. Or Moondog could have died when the boat exploded. Let’s go through each of them, shall we?
Theory #1: The Beach Bum is straightforward
In this reading of the ending, everything that we see happened actually happened. Isla Fisher dies, Martin Lawrence gets his leg bitten off by a shark, Moondog and Zac Efron rob a guy by breaking a bottle over his head, and Moondog not only wins the Pulitzer but ends up blowing up $50 million in cash.
If this is the ending of the movie, then we leave Moondog adrift in his little boat, knowing that another adventure probably awaits him and he’ll continue to live the charmed life he seems to live, getting away with all sorts of shenanigans because Moondog is Moondog.
The main evidence for the straightforward story is that we don’t have any major evidence against it. If a filmmaker wanted to make it abundantly clear what we witnessed was a dream then there are a few easy ways to go about it. Like Harmony Korine (the writer/director) could have ended the movie with Moondog waking up in the hospital right after the car crash. Or used a dissolve during the wedding reception to symbolize a “transition” from the real world to the drug-fueled fantasy. Or cut from Moondog in the boat at the very end to him on the floor of Minnie’s mansion, with Minnie walking up and telling him to get dressed.
(The video is by a professional film editor and discusses the use of dissolves. The third point it makes is about graphic matches. I’ll refer to this later, if you want to watch it now and get the context.)
Because we don’t have any of those obvious things, you can’t really point to the straightforward ending not being the intended reading. But there are a few things that seem like clues that things aren’t what they appear.
First off, there are a few things that the end that seem too absurd to be true.
Moondog really won a Pulitzer with dick poetry and everyone at the award reception gave him a standing ovation?
Moondog’s daughter, Heather, not only really divorced the guy she just married (and who Moondog didn’t like) but is coldly dismissive of the relationship?
Moondog really was on a boat that exploded but somehow ended up in his getaway boat with the kitten and both are okay?
Moondog really never had to deal with the repercussions of breaking out of rehab, which was his alternative to going to prison?
The Zac Efron and Martin Lawrence characters were really that bizarre?
Either we accept the absurdity of those things because “it’s Moondog, baby!” or we realize Korine wants us to read them as hyperbolic and sarcastic for a reason. There’s another indication that Moondog’s story might not be so real: the editing of everything after the book’s finished. The editing shifts into a summary style where we get what amounts to a montage of the various loose ends. That could have just been a choice Korine made to speed things along. But it also makes everything feel much more fluid and, arguably, dreamlike in its jumping from amazing thing happening to amazing thing happening. Not to mention the soaring music during some of the scenes.
So if we shouldn’t read The Beach Bum as straightforward, how should we read it?
Theory #2: The Beach Bum is a drug trip
You may remember the scene during the wedding reception where Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) takes Moondog into some crazy ass weed growing room. There, Lingerie goes into great detail about how this giant marijuana plant will completely fuck you up.
“This shit only grows in an isolated pond in Jamaica…. This weed here it’s so good it can make a mother fucker yearn[?] for the afterlife. It will send you to the outer limits of humanity.”
We then cut from them staring at the plant to them being back at the wedding reception.
There’s an argument to be made that we’re seeing Moondog go on that very journey. There are two moments this strain of weed could have fucked Moondog’s world up. One is during the wedding reception. The second is when Moondog’s on the run and Lingerie helps him escape with money and weed and the nearly-blind pilot.
In either reading of Theory #2, the final shot of Moondog in the boat, on the water, would be him waking up from the trip.
If it’s during the wedding reception, then soon after the deadly car crash happens, which brings Moondog close to the afterlife. Then we get the rest of the movie which can be nicely described as exploring the “outer limits of humanity”. If we read Beach Bum this way, then the final shot of Moondog in the boat could just be where he ended up the night of Heather’s wedding (that was the motorboat he used to get to the wedding, after all). Meaning none of what we saw happen after the wedding actually happened. It was just a kind of vision quest, a journey to the outer limits.
Like I pointed out in the previous section, though, there’s no clear indication of when the “trip” started. Which could just be Korine playing coy, wanting to walk the line between reality and fantasy and leaving it up to the viewer to decide. Or it could be me (and others who speculate in this way) overly complicating what was straightforward.
That all-powerful weed that Lingerie talked up so much was also described as being the key to his success. It helps unlock his creativity. It’s that very weed that Moondog’s smoking nonstop as he tries to finish his book. So the characterization of that plant may have only been to set it up as a kind of “Popeye’s spinach” that Moondog will eventually smoke in order to unlock his tremendous creative potential.
After the escape
Speaking of Moondog trying to finish his book, that post-escape sequence where Moondog has all the weed and smokes himself silly as he writes…could be the moment he starts his “outer limits” journey. In this case, you could read everything that happened before this (a majority of the movie) as having happened. It’s just after he “writes his book” that things are more hallucination than reality. Meaning that the Pulitzer, Heather’s divorce, the police giving up chasing him, and the eventual boat explosion would all be part of his drug trip.
Of the three theories in this post…this might be the most balanced. But the ones about the car crash and boat explosion aren’t bad either!
Theory #3: Moondog died…
There are two times Moondog might have died in The Beach Bum. There’s the car crash and the boat explosion. Let’s start with the boat.
Moondog died…on the boat
We have Moondog on the boat with $50 million in cash. He uses a firework to light the money on fire. It works! But the flames grow severe. Both Moondog and his kitten get concerned. We see Moondog move across the boat. Then…boom! The camera pans to the many bystanders who had been celebrating along the shoreline. All of them are shocked at what they just saw. There’s horror and confusion. Then money rains from the sky.
The next shot is of Moondog on his little motorboat, the kitten with him (a bit sooty but otherwise alright (alright (alright))). That seems too, too good to be true, right? Like what good fortune for Moondog! Not only did he grab the kitten, but got away completely unscathed, drink in hand, just laughing merrily as he floats away. That could be what happened….
He died and this is him essentially floating off into the afterlife. A few reasons we might think this.
Common mythology has dead souls “crossing the river”. So boatmen have come to symbolize Death. And the journey in a boat over a river or body of water has come to symbolize the transporting of the soul from one world to the next. It wouldn’t be out of the question for Korine to have adopted that mythology for Moondog. It’s hard not to think of death and hell when Moondog’s in the boat, at night, and there’s fire in the background. Especially with the final shot being Moondog kind of lost at sea, with some moments it looking like shadow is about to overwhelm him. WE EVEN GET A DISSOLVE. Which a filmmaker of Korine’s caliber would probably use for a meaningful transition. In this case, from one world into the next.
I think another key here is that we never see anyone else after everyone’s terrified that the boat exploded. Moondog calls out to them, but the camera stays with him, never showing us anyone else. And we don’t hear people respond to him. That visual isolation, along with the flames, and everything else…feels like it carries a subtext to it rather than being so completely straightforward as, “Well, he’s alive and well!”
The only real evidence against this would be Moondog’s been so god damn lucky throughout the rest of the movie, that if this is just about him being this carefree spirit that always seems to get away with everything…then… yeah…sure. It would line up, too, with how he was unscathed in the car wreck that killed Minnie. Dude is just ultra lucky.
Speaking of that car wreck….
Moondog died…in the car crash
So we get that beautiful montage of Minnie and Moondog right after the wedding reception. They’re just wandering around, laughing, smoking, soaking in how much they love one another. And then the car crash happens. Minnie, not paying attention, drives head-on into another vehicle. We cut from the montage to Moondog in the back of the ambulance. He’s completely fine, while Minnie is in critical condition. We don’t even see Moondog in a hospital room. He’s just wandering around, nose bloody but otherwise okay. Minnie then dies.
I think it’s fair to wonder if The Beach Bum then takes on some Vanilla Sky like vibes. In Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise gets into a horrible car crash and the rest of the movie is essentially a dream sequence of him in a coma. With how ridiculous Beach Bum gets…it could be the case that Moondog’s having a similar experience.
There are two details that I think support this reading.
First is the song that plays during the montage. “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee. The first verse ends with, “Is that all there is to a fire?” The second with, “Is that all there is to a circus?” The third with, “Is that all there is to love?” And the fourth verse goes very existential.
I know what you must be saying to yourselves
“If that’s the way she feels about it
Why doesn’t she just end it all?”
Oh, no, not for me
I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment
Cause I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you
That when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath
I’ll be saying to myself
Is that all there is
Is that all there is
If that’s all there is, my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is
That verse captures the tone of The Beach Bum pretty well. Moondog just keeps dancing, keeps drinking, smoking, having a ball, and that’s all there is to his life after the accident.
I wouldn’t put it past Harmony Korine, known as an experimental filmmaking, to use that song as a meta-indication that the actual story of Moondog ends 30 minutes into the movie. That’s all there was. The rest of it is him in a coma, slowly dying, in no hurry.
The additional support for this reading comes from the notion of “graphic matches”. If you watched the video about dissolves, the narrator mentions the “graphic match” dissolve as being this artistic highpoint. The graphic match being when a close-up of a character’s eye dissolves and is replaced by a wheel. Or a bone thrown into the air dissolves into a spaceship. Or we go from a fist about to hit someone in the face to a car crashing into another car.
If Moondog was in a coma in the hospital, how would he be positioned? Laid out in bed, right? With that in mind…how does the movie end? Just so happens Moondog is laid out in a boat. Adrift on the ocean. Again, that could be straightforward and have no metaphorical meaning at all. OR. It could be metaphorical, in which case, you can easily imagine the dissolve from the boat on the ocean to the hospital room and Moondog in the bed. With him adrift on the lonely ocean having represented the coma.
With that said, I do think you could make the case that the song just represents the attitude Moondog has after his accident and the death of his wife. At this point, he gives no fucks, and just lets whatever happens happen. This would add context to the straightforward reading, essentially explaining to us Moondog’s attitude from that point forward.
What is the right answer?
Honestly, I want to say something like, “I don’t think there has to be a right ending or reading. I think Korine is the kind of filmmaker who would create a layered experience. I think many great works have an ambiguity to them, and that The Beach Bum is one of them.”
If we go by Korine interviews in the lead up to Beach Bum‘s release, he talks a lot about just wanting to capture a good vibe and the joy Moondog has.
Definitely, that’s what Beach Bum is about. It really is about the idea of freedom in the moment, living in the moment and an idea of, at least his character, even though there’s kind of moral ambiguity, it really is about seizing a kind of joy and living without formal restraints.Thrillist
In that same interview, Korine mentions that he had been frustrated by this ultralight violent movie he had been working on for 2 years getting delayed…so he wanted to make “something funny.” That doesn’t sound like someone who intentionally made a layered, existential story where the happy go lucky character dies or didn’t actually have these good things happen.
But if we go by just the work itself…then, yeah, there’s an ambiguity, whether Korine intended it or not, and it means Beach Bum is a layered experience that allows viewers to have this existential reflection on whether or not Moondog’s care-free attitude is the source of comedy or tragedy.
Either way, I think the movie works and is great. So pick your poison. If all you want it to be is straightforward, then that’s all it is. If you want more, lucky for you, there’s plenty to dive into.