I’m going to give terminally hip filmmaker Harmony Korine the benefit of the doubt and presume, for the moment anyway, that his college coeds-on-a-Florida-debauch epic “Spring Breakers” is more than just mindless exploitation, that behind its lurid face it has some serious stuff on its mind.
This yarn — told with jittery methhead editing, blaring rap and a veritable cornucopia of pulsating navels and breasts — begins with four childhood friends sitting around their nearly empty college campus and grousing because they haven’t enough money to go on spring break to Florida. (For the record, their campus has palm trees, so it’s not like they’re stuck in some icebound upper Midwestern hellhole or anything.)
Two of the young women are portrayed by Disney Channel veterans Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez. Apparently they thought the surest way to be thought of as adult actresses was to sashay around in next to nothing.
Ashley Benson (of ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars”) and Rachel Korine (the filmmaker’s wife) round out the quartet.
Three of these young women, whose names I never caught (names aren’t important here … nor is character development or common sense), decide to make a quick buck by disguising themselves in ski masks and matching pink sweatshirts and robbing a local all-night restaurant with realistic-looking squirtguns.
They really get into the deception, threatening and abusing diners like veteran psychopaths. Evidently all those first-person-shooter video games are paying off.
Joined by their fourth member, Faith (played by Gomez), who attends a campus Christian meeting and seems to have the only moral compass in sight, they hit a southbound party bus. Next thing you know they’re dancing on the beach, doing shots and snorts and waving their ladyparts in the faces of horny college guys.
Arrested in a police raid on a drug-saturated motel room, they are bailed out by a local rapper/drug kingpin who calls himself Alien (James Franco, resplendent with big metal choppers, facial tattoos and cornrowed hair). He politely requests their companionship for the remainder of their stay.
For all the documentary-style footage of the college crowd getting their party on, “Spring Breakers” is utterly unrealistic. The women are basically ciphers defined by their bodies … and just how many college girls are up for armed robbery, anyway?
Saving the day is Franco, playing a Southern redneck who thinks he’s African American. The actor is having so much fun with this drawling, sleazy/charming reprobate that he immediately becomes the picture’s center. Franco, I’ve noticed, is at his best when allowed to portray really crazy characters, and Alien almost makes up here for his thoroughly inadequate turn in Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
Anyway, as the film becomes increasingly more surreal poor Faith freaks out on the growing atmosphere of violence and catches a bus for home. The girl played by Mrs. Korine (who, by the way, is the only one to have a nude scene…some marital counseling seems in order) gets winged in a confrontation with one of Alien’s rival drug lords (Gucci Mane) and is soon heading north.
That leaves the the Benson and Hudgens characters to hang with Alien in his obviously expensive but spectacularly tasteless beachside mansion. We’re led to believe that they actually fall for Alien (hey, he serenades them with the white grand piano sitting beside his swimming pool) and enjoy a ménage a trois. But really, this is only a prelude to a sort of “Wild Bunch” massacre in which they arm themselves to the teeth (while wearing matching bikinis and ski masks) and go gunning for a rival gang.
It looks to me as though Korine (he wrote Larry Clark’s pubescent hair raiser “Kids” and wrote and directed the astoundingly weird “Gummo”) is employing a ludicrous plot — it borders on the surreal — to say something about the ethical emptiness of a generation of young people reared on “Girls Gone Wild” videos and gangster rap.
But I’m not sure. Korine also seems to be celebrating the same group’s nihilism, as if in the empty land of 21st-century America destroying and being destroyed is just the way it goes so you might as well throw yourself in completely.
By that reckoning there are worse things than going down like a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.
Problem is, Korine muddles his message to the point that you don’t know what he’s trying to put across. It the movie serious? Is it just crass exploitation?
I’ll agree with the film’s fans that “Spring Breakers” is a fiercely energetic, visually kinetic sensory experience. But beyond that, the jury is still out.