(dir. Harmony Korine, 2013)
What a seemingly effective act of cinematic perversion "Spring Breakers" is. Taken in any five minute increments (of which this randomly-cutting movie could likely be reassembled without problem), and it's a hypnotic day-glo concoction of scantily-clad coeds, titillating sudden violence, and the most bizarre James Franco performance this side of most other things James Franco does.
For its first third, "Spring Breakers" approaches plot like it's the photo album rather than the photos itself, just a hollow vessel to hold whatever it desires. In this case, it concerns four college females, always scantily clad, allowing the movie's costume designer an easy day off. Desperate for the cliched spring excursion to Florida but with only $325 between them, they hatch a scheme to rob a local chicken shack with water pistols. What follows in St. Petersburg is initially your typical romp of drinking and promiscuous sex, bare breasts abounding, all amped up way even beyond 11.
All this until Alien (real name Allan) enters the picture. Played by James Franco with the zeal of an untethered actor working in his own movie, he's a local rapper/gangster whose career seems to lean heavily toward the latter. Soon he draws the girls into his portal and they ditch the 750ml bottles of liquor for semi-automatics, going on shooting sprees well beyond the usual collegiate mischief.
Writer/director Harmony Korine's gambit is some kind of audacious brilliance because those who love the movie and those who hate it will point to the exact same evidence. There's little room for debate. Little room for two valid interpretations.
"Spring Breakers'" pitch for itself boils down to Jason Lee's definition of rock and roll in "Almost Famous" - "Here I am, and fuck you if you don't understand me."
We can all agree Korine shoots the movie like a montage of itself, rapidly cutting from scene to scene and within a scene itself, doublebacking to revisit moments from only slightly different angles while purposefully avoiding any elegance. Lines in the voiceover find themselves repeated with no clear motive. Footage of spring break debauchery is presented like a parody of an MTV parody, with extreme close-up and pulsating bass lines and oversaturated colors allowing the titties and booze to wash over us.
What gets tricky is when you're forced to decide whether this has merit or not. Korine's proponents will call the movie a twisted reappropriation of Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies about the fun you can have when your parents aren't around. They'll say he doesn't set out to craft traditional narratives, but instead wants to break down the language of film and rebuild it to surreal, avant garde purposes. Meanwhile his detractors will say he's an emperor with no clothes and that he made a thesis instead of a movie - a movie that's all style and no substance, until the style becomes the substance, until that style quickly turns abrasive.
None of this to sound condescending. Instead to say that Korine and his movie inspires two distinct viewpoints that are equally valid because they can't be pitted against each other. No matter what side you're on, the other side simply didn't get it.
"Spring Breakers" isn't without its own genuine merits either. A sequence where Franco quietly seduces one of the more wholesome, frightened coeds to stick around, all with his hand caressing her face until it seems to envelop her, is chilling in its latent dread. Franco also delivers a monologue about the stuff in his home, built around the phrase, "Look at my sheeeeit," that deserves to be memorized by aspiring actors for auditions.
And there's a certain level of honor in an artist who works completely on his own terms, crafting a movie whose obnoxious style feels designed for you to hate it, taunting you to do so, until the rug is pulled out and it's time to get on board. If this is what Korine wants to do, "Spring Breakers" at least feels like purest distillation of these goals.
Ultimately it just feels like a surface-level movie that doesn't deserve a look beneath the surface.