Beaches of madness: Spring Breakers

It takes both chutzpah and skill to draw in arthouse and multiplex audiences alike and then challenge them to different ends. 'Spring Breakers', Harmony Korine's mainstream breakthrough, does its best...

This is 40. Harmony Korine, best known for scripting the Larry Clark-directed Kids (1995) in his early 20s, hits middle-age with Spring Breakers, a saturated daydream about four college airheads who raid a fast-food joint and escape from the anonymous boredom of their Kentucky dorms in pursuit of a humdrum Eastertime vacation in St. Petersburg, Florida, where fellow drink-fuelled, flesh-heavy spring breakers await. For the many to whom Korine's name means nothing, the film promises to be an unironic duty-free epitome of the YOLO fad. For the already-initiated few, Korine rides in with an opportunist's tongue firmly embedded in his cheek, proving he's down with those who were merely tots when he first broke through as a director with Gummo in 1997, and who had Werner Herzog drinking medicine from a slipper in Julien Donkey-boy two years later.

As ever with such enfants terribles as Korine - who is as dependent upon fashions as he is inclined to offset them - a question begs to be asked: who is leading whom? On one level, Spring Breakers feels like a too-easy exercise in bandwagonism, in shooting crabs in an unscraped barrel. But it's also the product of an undeniably natural image-maker, communicating on terms set by inferior others. When watching the film, one recalls Martin Scorsese's tale of origins regarding Goodfellas (1990): flicking channels one day to find that the music videos given airtime by the likes of MTV weren't as fast as people had been claiming, he went all-out to better them at it, to show them how it's done.

Similarly, one enjoys and indeed endures Spring Breakers as a conscious corrective to a culture built upon unironic vacuity. Trouble is, unironic vacuity - with its wholesale subscription to and attempted mastery of the consumer fetish - is designed to withstand commentary and parody precisely because it has been conditioned by a socioeconomic system that has failed its youth. It's our party and we'll be offensively meaningless if we want to. All attempts at détournement are jejune. Meanwhile: never has one mass of people looked so politically and intellectually impotent. If you can't blame 'em, join 'em.

Korine gives us plenty to interpret Spring Breakers as both an intended rebuke and a morally sensitive work. There's very little in the way of historical detail, but it's there in those voice-overs, in which its quartet of hawt bikini-clad lookers long to escape the material pressures of everyday life; in a miseducated world that denies both the practicability of political alternatives as well as The Future Itself, these girls prefer to spend their lectures licking the hard penises they've doodled on their empty notepads. If all a clearly failed system does is teach you into conforming to and perpetuating that very same system, what else is there to do other than go buy a bunch of red plastic cups (those readymade for college-set porn videos) and get fucked at the beach? Such madness!

In its second half, the film introduces James Franco, sporting braids and a dental grill as Alien, a terrible rapper who has Scarface on repeat and whose kingsize bed is adorned with cash and guns. (Alien is reportedly fashioned after Florida street rapper Dangeruss, but equally recalls Texas MC, Riff Raff.) Rescuing our female foursome from two nights at a county jail, Alien provides a bubble of all-out fun ("Spring break, spring break forever!") that is shattered only by - yes - gunplay, as bullets rat-a-tat into dayglo delirium as casually as Alien himself gives a double blow-job to loaded pistols, which two of the girls put suggestively and menacingly into his mouth.

Cinema, of course, is the artform of a deeply irrational age. Herzog claimed it's "not the art of scholars, but of illiterates". So it makes some kind of impossibly perfect sense to see AK47-armed, pink balaclava-clad anarchy unfold in the film's most outrageous and funniest scene, which reconfigures a dreadful Britney Spears song as the soundtrack to our hedonistic self-destruction. A product and wannabe-summation of its time, Spring Breakers drives such obnoxious filth to its logical conclusion so the rest of us don't have to.