Monday, March 25, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: SPRING BREAKERS - Come for the James Franco, Stay for the Social Commentary

Some movies work better as essays more than pieces of entertainment, focusing more about what they are trying to "say" rather than attempting to be narratively engaging. Spring Breakers is such a picture. While not at all boring or extraneous, you leave the film thinking about the ideas behind everything onscreen instead of caring about what happened to the characters.

The story is deceptively simple: Four college girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) want nothing more than to go to Florida for spring break. In order to raise the money, three of the girls rob a diner and then they are all off to St. Pete for bikinis, booze, booties and blow. After getting busted at a party, they are bailed out by a whiteboy rapper/gangsta named Alien (James Franco) who proceeds to indulge their lust for danger and excitement.

That's really the entire plot in a nutshell. There isn't much else that actually "happens" throughout the picture. There's a feud between Alien and his former friend/associate (played with a convincing mumble by rapper Gucci Mane) that drives the movie towards its ending, but the rest of the film is more a meditation on the idea of Spring Break (capitalized to emphasize its importance) and what it means to each of the characters. And while that might not be the most enthralling of plots to watch unravel, it does provide plenty to chew over.

It should be noted that James Franco is truly transformative as Alien, disappearing into a mess of cornrows, teeth grills and giant sunglasses. Everything you have heard about his performance is spot on: he's amazing. It's definitely a showcase of his diverse talent, and that there is no way you can pigeonhole him into one specific role or archetype. Every time he's on screen, he is bizarrely captivating. His accent, mannerisms, and posture fuse together into a totally realized character that will certainly be one of the highlights of his career.

The other girls have little snippets of individuality, primarily Selena Gomez as Faith. It's unfortunate when she exits the film (fairly early, too), since her religious beliefs and reasons for coming to Spring Break seem like the most interesting and multi-faceted. The other three girls all seem to have the same motivation: they want to completely let loose, so much so that they are willing to let their animalistic dark sides take full control.

And while the movie may not be exciting in terms of pacing or storytelling, where it does excel is exploring those wild urges and presenting them as a strangely enlightening experience. Director Harmony Korine always has this hazy, dreamlike feel in his movies and Spring Breakers benefits heavily from this. The movie really does feel like a deep and probing look into the subconscious of the beast known as Spring Break, all told through a neon-colored nightmare.

Probably the biggest concept on the table is the idea of shallowness as substance. These are characters who honestly feel moved and inspired by Britney Spears songs (the movie makes the best use of a Britney Spears song ever, actually justifying her music's existence), and whose idea of self-discovery and spiritual awakening involves getting stupidly wasted and half-naked on a beach. But, this really does mean something to these girls, so what does that say? Is it an expose on the slutty anarchy hiding beneath the surface of every pretty young college student? Spring Break is treated like the only escape these girls have from their humdrum existence, and they never want the feeling of it to end. It's soul-crushingly sad when you stop to digest it, and maybe that's what the filmmakers are trying to tell us.

There will be a lot of viewers who take the antics and viewpoints of the main characters as meaningful, relatable, and worth endorsing. This is a sentiment that has been misinterpreted before with movies like Brian DePalma's Scarface (a point that is directly referenced in Spring Breakers), but the way the film ends doesn't do much to dispose of that idea. Did what these characters do really matter? Did it change them in a positive way, even though that experience involved violence and self-induced stupidity? The movie gives you a lot to mull over, even if the actual plot is lacking in substance (apropos for this subject matter, I guess).

Spring Breakers certainly isn't a bad film (it'd actually make a great kind of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City double feature next to Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive), it's just not a very entertaining one. But, not all movies necessarily need to entertain to provoke interest and discussion. The movie definitely succeeds on that front, which is more than can be said of most mainstream Hollywood releases. With the exception of James Franco's astounding acting (I can't stress how phenomenal he really is), the movie doesn't warrant a theatrical viewing. Save it for home, when you can lie back and let the smoky mysticism of whatever the hell Spring Break means to you really ferment in the back of your mind.

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