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Just before the candy-colored apocalypse comes to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers you hear the peaceable murmurings of a beach, of lapping water, calling gulls and playing children.
They’re wonderful, these summer sounds, carefree promises, youthful pursuits like building sand castles and shrieking at waves. The first image of what looks like a beach party keeps the happy vibe going. A bunch, hundreds of gyrating, dancing young guys and girls are basking in the sweet light — as the beat goes on and the smiles sour into sneers — even though it becomes clear that they’re also marinating in a tsunami of beer.
The beer doesn’t flow, it floods: over heads, writhing torsos and the bared breasts that wiggle like puppies and wag at the camera like the middle fingers that more and more revelers raise. Welcome to the party, dude, Mr. Korine seems to be saying (or is he snickering?), now sit back, relax and enjoy the show. He proves an excellent ringmaster and a crafty one too. In Spring Breakers full movie he dives into a contested, profound American topic — the search for happiness taken to nihilistic extremes — but makes his exploration seem such a gonzo, outrageously funny party that it takes a while to appreciate that this is more of a horror movie instead of a comedy.
If the laughter occasionally finds catching in your throat, well, that’s part of the queasy, transfixing experience that is Spring Breakers which has fun with some of the same ideas in Mr. Korine’s last work, “Trash Humpers.” In that movie, filmed on VHS tape, four characters in rubber masks run amok, getting down and dirty as they compulsively, even ritualistically grind their pelvises against anything — garbage, of course, involved — in a creepy, dark yet also intriguing burlesque.
In Spring Breakers movie, Mr. Korine has replaced in his plug-uglies with a much more seductive and commercially viable female group of four that features two former Disney teen princesses, Selena Gomez (playing Faith) and Vanessa Hudgens ( as Candy), alongside Ashley Benson (as Brit) and his wife, Rachel Korine (as Cotty).
Introduced shortly after the opening bacchanal, the girls play students at a nondescript school somewhere warm that’s decorated with palm trees and bored young people getting high on weed, hanging out, sometimes reading and even attending classes. Over a number of dreamy, elliptical sequences that turn from day to night and back, it appears that the four girls want to go on spring break but don’t have enough cash. While Faith prays on her problems — “Are you crazy for Jesus?” her church leader calls out — the other three opt for a more direct approach: armed with squirt guns and a lady-sized sledgehammer, they go full-on gangsta and rob a restaurant.
“Pretend it’s a video game,” one giggles. “Act like it’s a movie.” So they do.There are consequences of a kind, but first: paaarty! The girls eventually head out for spring break in St. Petersburg, Fla where they join an invading army that has apparently commandeered every inch of sand, surf and hotel. From rooms to hallways these tanned, groomed, white-teethed beauties of American youth and orthodontics spill onto balconies and into pools, laughing and yelling as they drink, snort, dance, grind, thrash and jump, jump, jump up, moving together much like a single pulsing organism. They’re beautiful and monstrous, enthralling and repellent. For those who don’t belong to their tribe (never wanted to, never did), they may be exotic, worrisome, frightening or representatives of the decline of the West in hot-pink bikinis.
Just kids or children of the damned? Take your pick. Mr. Korine, a pasticheur and cultural vulgarian (part Dada, part European art cinema, part MTV’s “Jackass”), isn’t interested in making up your mind for you. Instead he tosses out his ideas like puzzle pieces and lets you see how or if they fit. The women want to go on spring break and want to have fun, and he seems to want the same. He splashes on the mesmerizing, gaudy color and bends the plot, adding short flash-forwards and flashbacks that make it look as if time were incessantly skipping forward and backward, almost swirling. Gestures, pieces of dialogue and moody moments are repeated like old songs, fantasies, rituals and highlight reels.
Mr. Korine obviously digs playfully with his visiting celebrities, and the actresses look delighted to do stuffs that would make Uncle Walt spin in his grave. They’re almost giddy, at least at first, and given that both Ms. Gomez and Ms. Hudgens have put in time working for Disney it’s no wonder that they cut loose. In Spring Breakers they have the opportunity to provoke the type of behavior that feeds the tabloids without thinking about the humiliations and career-crushing consequences paid by the likes of Lindsay Lohan. For his recent, putatively adult role in “The Paperboy” Zac Efron (Ms. Hudgens’s co-star in Disney’s “High School Musical” series) played a scene in which Nicole Kidman urinated on him. The female stars of Spring Breakers have a chance to shoot guns and hang out with James Franco.
Mr. Korine originally shows the robbery from the exterior and through the restaurant’s windows so that the assault, the women’s movements and violence, are seen inside a frame as if you were watching a film within a film. The entire Spring Breakers movie looks preposterous, like a bad music video, and the women in their black ski masks just look silly. Much later, when Mr. Korine loops back to the crime, he takes you inside so you can see the terrified customers cowering as Brit and Candy smash up the place, waving their “weapons.” The squirt guns are not real, yet both the women’s pleasure and the rage that pumps through the sequence and increasingly through the movie — feeding the excesses, the posturing and escalating violence like a poisoned river — feel terrifically real, familiar and very American.
At once blunt and oblique, Spring Breakers movie seems quite different depending on the way you hold it up to the light. From one angle it comes across as a savage social commentary that skitters from one idea to another — white faces, black masks, celebrity, the American dream, the limits of self-interest, the pursuit of authentic self — without gluing those ideas together. From another it comes off as the apotheosis of the excesses it so spectacularly displays. That Mr. Korine appears to be having it both (or many) ways may seem like a cop-out, but only if you believe that the role of the artist is to be a didact or a scold. Mr. Korine, on another note, fully embraces the role of court jester, the fool whose transgressive laughter holds corrosive truth. He laughs, you howl.