Youth-gone-wild provocateur Harmony Korine pushes booze-and-bikini hedonism to the extreme in "Spring Breakers," a film that grabs attention but is about as deep as a Florida motel Jacuzzi.
Korine makes a cogent point: Pop culture's celebration of the banal and the bad girl has created young people even more aggressively vacuous than those in 1995's "Kids" (written by Korine) or 1997's "Gummo" (written and directed by Korine).
However, after repeated illustrations of that argument, he then rests his case, padding his 94-minute film with montages of bare breasts and binge drinking and oft-repeated lines of voiceover dialogue.
Released last week in New York and Los Angeles, "Spring Breakers" has won attention as a "grown-up" vehicle for Disney stars Vanessa Hudgens ("High School Musical") and Selena Gomez ("Wizards of Waverly Place," Justin Bieber's plus one). Yet James Franco stands out more than his female co-stars in his role as a criminal with both a grill and heart of sleazeball gold.
Korine fuzzes up our impressions of the film's bikini-clad actresses Hudgens, Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine (the director's wife) with abundant group shots and extreme close-ups of eyes and other features on cherubic faces, accompanied by disembodied voices. It is hard to tell the identity of the person in the shot, or who is talking.
The female characters grow even less distinguishable when Korine tells their spring-break "story" through dialogue-free montages. He intersperses shots of the young women riding scooters on Florida streets with documentary-style footage of other spring breakers drinking and freaking in the sun.
"Breakers" eventually delineates Gomez's character, Faith, from the others. She's the least heinous of a feral foursome, who leave their dirt-boring college town by bus for St. Petersburg, Fla. A church girl hungry for new experiences, Faith embraces spring break's bacchanalian beer-bong gatherings as if they are true exotic adventures.
Gomez shows the good girl's struggle of desiring total freedom but not wanting the hangovers or shady characters attached to it. She emerges from "Spring Breakers" with dignity intact.
Korine gives Faith a bit of a backstory and an apparent ability to absorb some of what adults including her wannabe-hip preacher tell her. Hudgens' character (to pretend to have caught her name from the film would be disingenuous), by contrast, treats a college history lecture as white noise, distracted by obscene doodles and the prospect of multiple blackouts during her upcoming Florida trip.
As for Benson's and Rachel Korine's characters, one has pink hair and one blond. That's all we get from them apart from their commitment to joining Hudgens' character in pursuit of #yolo (that's Twitter talk for "you only live once").
Puffing with bravado and a devilish glint, Hudgens comes off as determinedly vacuous in the moments you can positively ID her. The character's skank pride and three-way sex scene almost certainly will distance Hudgens from her "High School Musical" role. So, um congratulations?
Hudgens' character and her cronies long ago drank the sugar-free Red Bull and bought into the idea that being raunchy and sexually aggressive equals empowerment. They developed their sense of empathy from violent video games. They idolize (Disney meta reference alert!) Britney Spears, that Mickey Mouse Club regular turned jailbait superstar turned sad case.
They cannot be corrupted by spring break because they arrive in Florida corrupt. To get money for their trip, they rob a fast-food place in their town, telling each other to pretend they are in a video game or a movie while terrorizing customers.
That the paradise they're literally gunning for consists of desiccated palm trees and cinder-block motels underscores Korine's seeming indictment of pop culture's elevation of the mundane and mindless. "Spring Breakers" suggests 20 years of MTV beach parties and bootyliciousness run through a Vocoder and spit out onto a scrubby-looking beach.
Franco embodies this nihilistic and proudly uneducated spirit as Alien, a Florida native, rapper and two-bit hood who bails the young women out when they get arrested on drug charges. Whereas the young female characters barely get text, Alien speaks his subtext.
He came from trash and retains a strong awareness of his limitations. He knows it's the money he's earned from selling drugs that bought him access to four pretty women, just as it bought him the nunchucks and guns he proudly displays in his bedroom.
No one has wooed four women at once more sincerely than Alien. He tells them each, pimp-style, how special they are and seems to mean it. Franco lends Alien a tacky, gun-toting gangster such self-awareness and vulnerability that he becomes the movie's true antihero.
Alien cites a role model in Al Pacino's Tony Montana, from the 1983 Brian De Palma version of "Scarface." He's got the film "on repeat," Alien brags to the young women.
Given this film's exploitative nature and Franco's singular performance, "Spring Breakers" might engender multiple viewings and a cult status à la "Scarface." Korine, unfortunately, jumps the gun by frequently repeating lines of Franco's dialogue in voiceover, as if "Spring Breakers" already is on repeat.
Cast: Selena Gomez, James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
Director-writer: Harmony Korine
Rated R (strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @carlameyersb.