At any given moment in Harmony Korine’s beautiful but tedious experiment in ironic exploitation, you’ll see one of three things: a girl in a bikini being ogled by the camera, one or more girls in bikinis pumping their fists in the air and calling out “Whoooo!” or a girl in a bikini suggestively fondling firearms. Occasionally a girl’s top comes off.
At first, it looks like Korine is angling for a subversive take on the Girls Gone Wild and MTV spring-break subgenre of long-form videos where barely dressed girls and jock dudes dance on beaches or boats. But as the film toggles between raucous Skrillex-scored party footage and moodier scenes with woozy voiceovers and thrumming music by Cliff Martinez, we see the aim is not so deep. We see instead, what we know from every other youth-in-bloom saga: there’s a void of nihilistic appetite beneath the loudly appealing surfaces.
The story here is simple, but not without promise. Four best friends in college, desperate to get away for spring break, are short of money. Two of them rob a restaurant and they all head to Florida. After days of glorious boozing and “Whooo!”-ing, they fall in with a smalltime drug lord, whereupon the limits of their incipient criminality are tested. Cue shots of blood red sunset and the girls’ dawning recognition that their paradise is imperfect, and perhaps worse, the parties look just like the ones up north, only with better weather.
The joke is that the girls are played by Disney and ABC Family veterans. Playing the addled-headed firestarters, Brit and Candy, are Ashley Benson from Pretty Little Liars and Vanessa Hudgens, once of High School Musical, while The Wizards of Waverly Place’s Selena Gomez plays Faith, the conflicted church mouse. Korine’s wife Rachel rounds out the group, playing the forgettable Cotty. But the joke isn’t particularly funny, whether or not you’ve ever watched ABC Family. And watching these onetime child stars on a drug-fueled bender straight out of Quentin Tarantino’s private grindhouse stash isn’t obviously hilarious.
James Franco is a bit funnier. He pops up midway as Alien, a self-styled rapper and drug dealer with the worst set of cornrows likely to be seen on movie screens this year. While Rachel Korine and Gomez’s performances are dead on arrival, Franco dives into playing the gun-waving, drawling, and highly stupid Alien with his customary gusto. Benson and Hudgens are up to the task, and match Franco’s clear desire to play around and test the boundaries of the role, particularly in a half-queasy, half-humorous scene where the three of them mime a sex act with handguns.
Even with some of the performers putting so much effort into their underwritten roles, and the music and cinematography creating a simultaneously grim and gorgeous backdrop, Spring Breakers is at last neither clever nor jarring. Korine tells Interview magazine, ”“When I wrote the script, I started thinking about girls in bikinis with guns, wearing ski masks.” No. Really? The film reveals that he never developed the idea much beyond that. Scraps of dialogue are delivered with little resonance or impact, then played back ad nauseam in a near-constant loop of narration that alludes to music sampling, but only in the most devastatingly repetitive way. By the time we get to the scene where Alien plays piano and sings a Britney Spears song while the girls dance around him wearing bikinis and pink ski masks while waving assault rifles, it is clear that there is no vision at work here, or even much of a story.
Much as he did with his script for Larry Clark’s Kids back in 1995, Korine here tries to straddle the line between exploitation and seamy drama. This time, though, as director as well as writer, Korine falls right over that line into arrant exploitation, and worse, the movie never figures out a way to have any fun with it. Spring Breakers is grindhouse with pretensions of being arch, or maybe just self-aware. It doesn’t appear to be either.