Spring Breakers: Harmony Korine shoots Spring Breakers in a dreamy neon glow: he starts with sun-kissed spring-break footage equal parts MTV commercialization and Girls Gone Wild debauchery, moves into slow-motion, pumps up the Skrillex score, and goes to shots of a college in the middle of nowhere, desolate big streets at night, and some girls, bored, half of them played by ex-Disney multimedia princesses. I’m describing technique here rather than incident because the movie drowns itself in the former; Korine treats the whole movie as a montage with a tempo that persistently feels as if it will shift but then doesn’t. Oddly, the movie’s basic outline has some propulsion: vapid college girls steal some money, head down to Florida for a life-changing spring break, get busted, and wind up entwined with a drug dealer calling himself Alien (James Franco). But Korine over-edits most of the movie into a hallucinatory blur.
This is all intentional; during a Q&A at the Museum of the Moving Image, Korine said—with self-regarding matter-of-factness that I think I was supposed to find shocking or admirable or heroic—that he doesn’t care about scripts, realism, truth, or boring parts (or all those other things that concern the hacks and the non-Harmonies of the world, was the implication). And I agree: often those things aren’t necessary! Especially the boring parts! Of which Spring Breakers actually has many—because beautiful images can, in fact, morph into boring parts when every moment in your spring break crime movie must be revisited at least twice, like an art installation on a loop.
But for Korine, the boring parts are where you learn anything about these girls and why some of them take better than others to a hustler’s life, which means several of the movie’s big turns happen for basically no reason. To make the girls need money for spring break, they are convinced that it costs a princely sum, even though they spend most of their time in trashed motels with alcohol (and heavier stuff) flowing freely; so the girls have no money, but when they need a getaway car for their robbery, a teacher’s car is easily stolen offscreen (one of the girls “knows where he keeps his keys”? Which I guess is: somewhere unlocked and unguarded even when he’s not on campus?); and their eventual arrest for, I guess, drug possession makes little logistical sense. Even the movie seems confused about whether Alien pays their fines or their bail.
Little of these nitpicks matter much, but Korine spreads his material too thin for the impressionistic dreamscape he wants to paint. His image-heavy approach means there are some indelible, thrilling moments: When the girls commit their first robbery, the camera stays in their getaway car for an unbroken taken as it circles the building, the crime visible through windows but scored with the engine’s loud rumble. Later, they stumble around a parking lot singing “Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears, which matches up to a later, weirder scene where three of the four girls don pink ski masks and dance to Franco’s solo-piano cover of Spears’s “Everytime,” which he is playing at the white piano sitting next to his pool. Franco has another great scene that consists mainly of him standing on his bed in his gangster paradise mansion, listing things that he owns (“my shit,” he keeps calling it). There is an insane shootout, and a great, pseudo-music-video shot of the girls on motor scooters. The 30-minute highlights reel of this movie would be a thing of beauty. A 70-minute cut might even work while still qualifying as a feature film.
But Korine lets few of these moments pass without repetition I imagine he intends as hypnotic. So we are treated to the crack of a gun cocking, over and over; Franco drawling “spring break forever,” over and over, and lots of other refrains that play like a parody of Terrence Malick. Of course, Malick also uses his impressions to give space to his actors (even if some of them are sacrificed to his editing progress). Korine, shooting toward mood rather than people, only lets Franco create something resembling a character. The girls, the movie’s ostensible subjects, barely have characteristics: The girl played by Vanessa Hudgens loves to place her hands in gun poses and fire. All of them flip their middle fingers almost as a default. The girl with the most lines, the one played by Selena Gomez (OK, she has a name that actually sticks: she’s Faith, because she’s the religious one! Another sly bit of social satire from Harmony!), exits the movie halfway through. Then the girl played by the director’s wife has an exit scene that’s almost exactly the same. I would’ve loved to see Hudgens, for example, who was charming in the non-Disney Bandslam a few years ago, in a more adult role, or Selena Gomez testing herself by doing more than alternating between naïve elation and reasonable worry, but Korine doesn’t seem interested in anything so pedestrian as actors, characters, or scenes. I admire the weird beauty and audacity of Spring Breakers, but the experience of actually watching it for 92 minutes isn’t quite the heady rush its director seems to have had in mind.