Film Title: Spring Breakers
Director: Harmony Korine
Starring: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson
Running Time: 94 min
It looks as if the time has come to dust off the creakiest of F Scott Fitzgerald quotes. “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional,” the writer quipped in a moment of generosity towards critics of the future. The latest, knowingly equivocal film from Harmony Korine, director of the legendary Gummo , works hard at straining the limits of Fitzgerald’s definition.
Set during the horrid bacchanalia that is spring break – when, it seems, American students behave like drugged-up Bonobo monkeys – the picture wallows in the damp, flashy vulgarity of the celebrations. Wander past Spring Breakers in a drunken stupor and you could easily mistake it for a mindlessly hedonistic pop video.
The film can, however, also be viewed as a puritanical evisceration of a nation in moral and intellectual decline. Before we embark on our Conradian descent into sub-tropical hell, Korine points his camera at a pair of female students paying scant attention during a history lecture on reconstruction and emancipation. Their response – if something so uninterested can meet the definition – is to draw penises on notepads and simulate oral sex. Some sort of grubby dialectic is afoot.
Fitzgerald might see something of The Great Gatsby in Korine’s nastier opus. Spring Breakers does, after all, focus on a group of young people falling under the spell of a dubious libertine while frolicking decadently by the seaside.
The director knowingly (so knowingly you can feel the irony seeping from the screen and clogging up the carpet) casts former Disney stars Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez as college students unable to pay for their upcoming half-term revels in Florida. Soap actor Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife) complete the union of dissolute undergraduates. Having decided that life is not worth living without spring break, they rob a fast-food restaurant and light out for the beaches of St Petersburg.
Unlike various characters in Dostoevsky’s version of that city, Korine’s puppets – despite at least one a being an evangelical – don’t allow themselves to give in to pesky guilt. The intoxicating power of, well, intoxication is not to be questioned.
Nonetheless, some sort of moral deliverance does come their way. Arrested for drugs offenses, they allow themselves to be bailed out by an affected gangster named Alien. Further descent into other dark places ensues.
Both the world of the spring break and the demi-monde through which Alien moves are seen as preposterous constructions. Korine shoots the students’ parties with a freaky enthusiasm – red-hot cinematography and pornographic slow-motion – that would give Leni Riefenstahl pause for thought.
While the girls shag and snort, we hear them delivering idealised but largely sincere meditations on their experiences to parents and grandparents. Everyone is so lovely. I’ve made so many new friends. The deadened tone recalls the bland gibberish spouted by brainwashed soldiers in The Manchurian Candidate . It looks, however, as if these kids have volunteered for mind control.
James Franco has never been better as Alien, the plastic hoodlum. Recycling gangsta patois that seemed out of date a decade ago, he lures the girls into vice and ultimately propels them towards an unavoidably violent denouement.
Maintaining his queasy dialectic throughout, the director oscillates between disgust and frenzied indulgence in that final showdown. Forget Dostoevsky, Conrad and Fitzgerald. The only comparison worth making is with videogame Grand Theft Auto: Vice City . The girls prance in matching pink balaclavas. Guns are discharged. Huge packets of drugs are bandied. The music pounds lubriciously. The player is invited to find this world disgusting, but he or she continues to pound the keypad.
We are, it seems, all complicit in the squalid corruption of contemporary pop culture. Does that count as a moral?