Harmony Korine seems to want it both ways, all day, with "Spring Breakers," his super-stylized descent into a sunbaked hell where bikini-clad, gun-toting college babes serve as our guides.
As writer and director, Korine wants us to be appalled and aroused, hypnotized and titillated. He wants to satirize the debauchery of girls gone wild while simultaneously reveling in it. And damned if he doesn't pull it off.
This is the rare movie that I actually found myself liking more the longer I spent away from it and the more I thought about it - mainly because I couldn't stop thinking about it. In the moment, I found it numbingly repetitive, even boring at times: an obvious juxtaposition of sex and violence, of dreamlike aesthetics within a nightmare scenario. And it is all of those things. But it stuck with me, and it made me appreciate the genius of Korine's approach.
There is a great deal of genuine artistry in this film, which is the most polished and mainstream to date from the maker of indies like "Trash Humpers." The exquisite images, which range from intimately gritty to eerily glowing, come from Belgian cinematographer Benoit Debie, and Cliff Martinez ("Drive") complements them with a mesmerizing score. But "Spring Breakers" is also provocative in various ways -totally unsurprising from the guy who wrote Larry Clark's "Kids" at age 19 - depending on the viewer. In super slo-mo, as beer-soaked party girls cavort on the beach to the thump of electronic dance music, is that how it actually feels in the middle of it? Or is that the frightening extreme adults imagine when they dare to ponder what their kids are up to each March?
The corruption of formerly squeaky-clean Disney Channel superstars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens may be Korine's cleverest trick of all: They get to show some range, we get to gawk. But James Franco steals the whole movie away when he arrives about halfway through as a cornrowed, wanna-be gangster rapper named Alien (pronounced a-LEEN). It's a showy, wonderfully weird performance, but Franco also finds the vulnerability beneath the bravado. And in playing a complicated, flawed ringleader, he's much more effective here than he was in "Oz the Great and Powerful."
The young women of "Spring Breakers" have their own treacherous road to follow. The four longtime friends (Gomez, Hudgens, Ashley Benson of "Pretty Little Liars" and Rachel Korine, the director's wife) long to escape the drudgery of their dreary college life. Spring break in Florida beckons, and after a quick-and-dirty, coked-up diner robbery - which three of the girls pull off without the help of Gomez's character, the churchgoing Faith - they're headed South.
Clearly these women already were headed for trouble long before they got in the car; they're essentially wild animals in hot pink nail polish. They just needed a little shove, which the promise of non-stop partying provides. When they get busted for narcotics possession - and the flashy Alien shows up to bail them out - their fates are sealed. He talks a lot of trash, jumping up and down on his cash-covered bed with a machine gun in each hand, flashing a devious smile through a glittering grill. But he's also lonely and needy, and in these girls - or at least in a couple of them - he thinks he's found his soul mates.
A scene in which Korine prominently (and effectively) uses Britney Spears' "Everytime" is a microcosm of the rest of the film, and its mixture of playfulness and danger. Alien sits down at his oh-so tasteful poolside piano and seems to expose himself emotionally by performing the haunting, plaintive ballad; Korine then plays the actual song over images of Alien's newfound harem bouncing in bikinis and girly-pink ski masks, hoisting rifles in the air and preparing to go on a crime spree. But a surprising amount of suspense reveals itself within the ridiculousness of it all; that's what makes "Spring Breakers" so hard to shake.
They never feel like real people, these curvaceous banditas, but they are the future of America, and this might be the last, best time of their lives. We're all screwed, Korine seems to be saying. It's very sad - but also kinda sexy.
"Spring Breakers," from A24 Films, is rated R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout. Running time: 92 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.