3/22/2013

Review: 'Spring Breakers' starring Selena Gomez and James Franco


Boobs, butts, guns, alcohol, drugs, sex, death. That's what spring break is supposed to be all about, right? Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers is one of the most deceptively brilliant films you'll see all year, and unquestionably the best film about the annual rite of passage populated by drunken, oversexed co-eds and MTV veejays. As with all of Korine's nerve-racking, button-pushing films, he strives to make a simple point by pushing everything to the extreme, telling a coming of age story that is closer to horror than a fun-filled romp.

It's been nearly twenty years since Korine burst onto the scene at the age of 21, writing Larry Clark's controversial, groundbreaking teen drama, Kids.  The film was notable for its raw, open honesty and natural aesthetic, a style Korine has continued to nurture as he's stepped behind the camera. But Spring Breakers is a departure from everything else he's done; a neon-lit, candy-coated fever dream where Disney pop starlets kill, and drink, and snort cocaine until their pretty little hearts are content, all while a Dirty South version of James Franco grins by their side.

By now you've probably seen all of the pastel-colored posters and trailers that hint at a Girls Gone Wild meets MTV video mash-up. Korine's smart, and gives you everything you're expecting right from the start as drunken, stoned frat boys and gals flash their crotches and raise their drinks in the air in a holy salute to debauchery they'll never remember. It's a frequently repeated image, and begins to take a whole new meaning as the walls begin to close in and things start to get dark.

Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Harmony's wife, Rachel) are four best friends attending a southern university, where they hope to escape the boredom of it all. As her name suggests, Faith is the religious one of the group, although she seems disinterested. We learn fairly early on that Candy and Brit are the toughest, fearless, and hard-partying of them all. That's why violence is their first thought when they don't have the money to hit Miami for spring break like everyone else has done.

With ski masks, water pistols, and a stolen ride they brazenly rob a fast food joint, the crime itself an odd mix of terror and absurdity, like Sugar & Spice without the "Debbie" masks.  Korine shows his maturity as a filmmaker in capturing the crime, a slo-mo single tracking shot seen from the getaway car. Flush with cash, the girls are soon in Florida and partying it up with literally thousands of others, trading bong hits, making out with random dudes, and living a life of complete and utter sin.

Many other filmmakers would have been content to stick with the established tone, setting for what is essentially a better-looking version of last year's Project X. But Korine has other ideas, and the film veers into much bleaker territory when the girls are arrested. The girls emerge from their dream-like haze with the help of a rapper/thug named Alien, played by a cornrowed, tatted up and gold-grilled James Franco. Casual moviegoers may only recognize Franco for his more mainstream efforts, but his true passion is in taking on roles nobody would expect. As Alien he completely owns the film, seeding it with classic diatribes (The "Look at all my sh*t" rant is an instant classic), while creating a wholly unique character and changing the course of the entire film. Frequently boasting "Spring break...spring break forever!”, Alien revels in his hedonistic glory. While his home is packed with guns, drugs, and stacks of cash, like so many cardboard gangstas his heart pumps Kool-Aid and he bails the girls out. In a fashion he falls in love with them, or takes them on a wild journey none of them could have expected.

While far and away Korine's most accessible film, that's a pretty low bar, and Spring Breakers is likely to offend as many as it reels in. Casting the cherubic Gomez in such a role, where she only stops drinking and partying long enough to lie to her grandmother, is like a shot in the ribs to parents whose kids have followed her career. Hudgens' reputation has mostly been spoiled already, but between her and Benson it's hard to gauge which one looks like more of a skank. The camaraderie between all of the girls is inviting, though, and powers much of the story. The only exception is Korine, who seems to only be there because she's the director's wife and more willing to get naked.

Skrillex's pumpin' soundtrack soon gives way to a pulpy, vintage score by Cliff Martinez, who also did the music for last year's Drive. Actually, the two have a similar, downbeat, surreal tone that will be intoxicating to some, frustrating to others. Korine isn't saying anything especially new, touching briefly upon the loneliness, isolation, and feigned invincibility of youth. But that's sort of the point, isn't it? That no matter how many years go by, kids will always be just as dangerous, reckless, naive, and misguided as ever.