Taking a premise that’s pure exploitation and fusing it with a style that’s practically experimental, it can’t be denied that writer-director Harmony Korine has created something unique with Spring Breakers, a descent into the vapidly savage and hedonistically depraved psyches of a quartet of comely female college students seeking larcenous excitement on the beaches of Florida during that annual ritual of youthful debauchery known as spring break.
But what exactly has he wrought? Is it a condemnation of the base impulses of modern youth? Is it simply glossy titillation? The end result seems to be a swirl of both that mirrors its main characters in being attractive and dressed up in bright colors but ultimately proving shallow, aimless and not great at expressing itself.
Our anti-heroines' sole motivation is to escape the confines of their school for a jaunt to Florida. But upon discovering that their pooled finances are insufficient for travel and room expenses, three of the girls, Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine), rashly decide to pull off a robbery, a crime that their more religious friend, the imaginatively named Faith (Selena Gomez), seems happy to shrug off so long as it gets them to their destination. But the thrill of the caper seems to have infected Brit and Candy, leaving them vulnerable to the temptations of Alien (James Franco), a rapper and self-styled gangster eager to induct them into his violent lifestyle.
In terms of visceral experience, Korine succeeds in giving the film a distinctive atmosphere. The Florida landscape is presented as a surreal and nightmarish wonderland awash in color, from the bright neon hues of sunlit beaches covered with youth in various states of undress and intoxication to the grimy green fluorescence of the streetlights outside the seedy stores and bars the girls hover around.
The depiction of the girls' crime spree itself is also nicely handled. Their first robbery, a hastily planned attack on a restaurant, is an elegantly simple sequence that plays out like a stylish update of the amazing single shot bank robbery from Gun Crazy as we follow Cotty in the getaway car prowling around the exterior of the building, catching glimpses of Brit and Candy terrorizing the patrons through the windows. The opening slow-motion montage of bouncing breasts and booze seems gratuitous until we see how Korine bookends it later with a similar montage of the girls and Alien conducting a series of stick-ups (amusingly scored to a Britney Spears ballad). Victimizing others has replaced drinking and partying as the girls' recreation of choice and the predatory gender dynamic has been flipped. The horny guys eager to get into their pants are left hog-tied, terrified and deprived of funds.
The film's almost stream-of-consciousness structure and editing allows events to fold in on themselves as in a fever dream or, perhaps more appropriately, a drug-and-alcohol-fueled haze. Scenes of frenetic partying will suddenly be interrupted by isolated shots of the girls in a police car. A moment of Faith sobbing fearfully for her friends is shattered by a hint of future carnage. Shots and dialogue are repeated often, sometimes to the point of irritation. One exchange between Alien and the girls plays out three times, slightly differently each time, to little apparent effect other than instilling impatience in the viewer. Alien's incessant "Spring break forever" mantra also began to illicit groans from the audience I saw it with, a reaction I shared.
That editing style, the sometimes amorphous plotting, the uneven pacing and the improvisational feel of the dialogue suggest that Korine went into production with only a loose story and just started filming with the hope of shaping it into a film in post-production, which brings us to the film's primary weakness and the element that holds it back from real greatness: the lack of a strong script. Bereft of that, we're given four lead characters without much definition. That may very well be Korine's whole point, to present examples of a lost, destructively vacuous generation for ridicule, but as realized here that doesn't make for a very fulfilling cinematic experience. This is particularly disappointing considering there are plenty of films (Rules of the Game and American Psycho spring to mind) that succeed in making shallow characters compelling and interesting. Unfortunately, Korine doesn't seem too interested in exploring his anti-heroines' sociological deficiencies.
The closest we get to dimension among the bikini-clad protagonists is Faith. The lack of fervor she displays during her church services and her naïve conviction that a week of partying will somehow be a life-enriching experience (a viewpoint that neither Gomez as actress or Korine as writer succeed in making seem genuine) suggest an emptiness that, while never properly explored or resolved, at least gives her a modicum of texture. Brit and Candy are practically indistinguishable in terms of personality and Cotty fades into the background.
One of the most notable aspects of the film in the press is the subversive casting of Disney brand performers Hudgens and Gomez, both of whom seem eager to shed their wholesome, family-friendly persona with an eye toward more substantial film roles. So how do they do? It seems unfair to criticize them too harshly considering how little they seem to have been given to work with. However, if much of the film was actually improvised by the actors, it would require them to possess a very particular skillset to keep scenes from growing aimless and meandering. Alas, none of the foursome really make it work on those terms.
Thankfully, Franco does. Sporting a mouth full of metal and oozing laconic sleaze, he does a great job conveying a truly horrific human being determined to make sure the party never ends while hinting at the insecurities hiding beneath his felonious bravado. When he recruits the girls, he seems interested in them not only as partners-in-crime or as lovers or to accessorize his vast collection of guns and clothes, but to serve as his audience. His entrance into the film provides real energy and menace. He's mesmerizing as he tries to simultaneously seduce and intimidate Faith into sticking around or in a tense moment in which the girls turn the tables on him, forcing him to try to out-crazy them in a manner that almost seems romantic when viewed through the warped sensibilities of these people.
But his demented zeal can't pierce the surprising inertness the film ultimately instills in the viewer. The climax, a final paroxysm of violence, doesn't thrill or disturb or illuminate anything but remains numbly uninvolving, leaving us with a sensory hangover but no emotional takeaway. If Korine's story and characters had the same charge that his visuals did, we might have had a bonafide crime classic on our hands instead of a fascinating but somewhat soulless misfire.
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