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Very few vacationers who embark on a weeklong spring break trip expect safe, wholesome, squeaky-clean, life-empowering experiences. They temporarily abandon the day-to-day grind of work, school or reality in search of guiltless, gratuitous debauchery fueled by gallons of booze and ounces of illegal substances. To paraphrase Nevada’s tourism bureau, what happens on spring break hopefully stays on spring break.
Similarly, audience members taking a chance on Harmony Korine’s buzzworthy Spring Breakers -- a dangerous, Day-Glo postcard to modern-teen excess -- shouldn’t be hoping for a satisfying film bolstered by multi-faceted performances that follow well-crafted story arcs. Korine shrewdly provides viewers with a stylish excuse to turn off their moral compass, to bathe in the foolish vices of some truly despicable on-screen characters, and to observe the potential repercussions of a generation influenced by MTV and the Girls Gone Wild video series – the kids who wrongly believe life can be treated like a video game until reality creeps up and pimp-slaps them in the side of the head.
Korine’s Spring Breakers feels like the floor of a Tampa Bay strip club. It’s sticky, slimy, dirty and has seen far more depravity and corruption than one should handle. Already a cult classic thanks to a handful of festival screenings at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Spring Breakers somehow lives up to its own impossible hype. Younger audiences lured by the promise of Disney Channel royalty doing very un-Disney things will have found their Less Than Zero. They’ll also be quoting James Franco’s dialogue for decades.
Franco plays Alien, a South Florida gangster who encounters four bikini-clad beauties – played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine – after their vacation in paradise falls apart. In Alien, these girls see the bottom of the downward spiral that awaits any partygoers who succumb to the depravity and wickedness of spring break. Some run away from the empty promises of his criminal lifestyle. Others embrace the words of the serpent and take a big bite out of his juicy apple.
And yet, if we’re being honest, Korine’s Spring Breakers is a better movie-going experience than it is an actual movie. Character development’s limited to a few stiff growing pains. Outside of Gomez’s semi-religious character (not-so-subtly named Faith), the girls are primarily defined by their craven need for booze, drugs and dudes. The overall plot stays about as shallow as a shot glass, even when Korine escalates a turf war between Alien and his former childhood friend, Archie (played by rapper Gucci Mane). And Korine’s chief takeaway about the human condition could be boiled down to, “Life is difficult, yet spring break provides a much-needed release from day-to-day pressures.” Clothing, of course, is optional.
It’s not often that we’re able to witness the birth of an iconic screen character, yet Franco pushes Alien into the annals of Hollywood lore with his magnetically gonzo performance. The actor’s performance has been at the forefront of almost every Spring Breakers discussion since the movie opened in limited release, and rightfully so. The metal teeth and corn-rowed hair are but a superficial artifice to the gangster who adores his material things (“Look at my shit,” a quote he repeats often in one of the film’s best scenes, earns its status as a gold-standard catchphrase for a new generation) and finds true soulmates in the bad girls eager to lose themselves on spring break (“forever!”)
I can’t emphasize enough, though, that the whole of Breakers isn’t as good as some of its parts. Korine musters pop-soaked schlock with ample style and a handful of stellar performances, notably from Gomez and Franco, who is off-the-charts amazing in this part. The film’s more surreal than recommendable, unless you grew up worshipping Britney Spears (a beacon of light for the characters on screen) and dreaming of a day when you can lose yourself – in every way – in the vodka-soaked sands of the Sunshine State.