Arguably the smartest person ever to appear regularly on MTV, high-schooler (and cartoon character) Daria Morgendorfer once noted, "As far as I can make out, 'edgy' occurs when middlebrow, middle-aged profiteers are looking to suck the energy -- not to mention the spending money -- out of the 'youth culture.' So they come up with this fake concept of seeming to be dangerous when every move they make is the result of market research and a corporate master plan."
I found myself thinking a lot about MTV in "Spring Breakers," Harmony Korine's laceration of American youth and its annual rites. The cable network probably went further than anyone to corporatize the age-old trek to the Florida coastline, and as presented by Korine, this bacchanal has become codified, conformist and utterly repetitive. Are we having fun yet?
A quartet of college girls (played by Disney Channel alums Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, "Pretty Little Liars" star Ashley Benson, and director's wife Rachel Korine) are bored with their southern university, its droning history lectures and its Christian fellowship meetings guided by bleached-blond biker clones.
So, the way kids do, three of them hold up a restaurant (with squirt guns, rubber mallets and ski masks) and use the proceeds to send all of them to Florida for spring break.
Upon their arrival, Korine gives us the shots we expect to see in a teensploitation movie on this subject: bikini girls popping their tops and flipping off the camera, Neanderthal thugs funneling booze, a line of boys holding beer cans at crotch level and pouring the liquid into the mouths of reclining women.
The tip-off that this isn't going to be an adolescent frolic is that these sequences are presented over and over again throughout the film, turning these snapshots of wild partying into numbing, abstract images. The more you watch the fun, the less fun anyone seems to be having. But hey, maybe "Girls Gone Wild" will be filming us!
One hotel party gets a little too wild and features a little too much cocaine, and our heroines get sent to jail, where they are soon bailed out by Alien (Franco), a white guy with dreadlocks, a garish grill of metal teeth and a fixation on gangsta culture. (While showing the girls his many belongings -- future acting students will refer to this as the "Look at my s—t!" monologue -- he boasts that he has, "'Scarface'! On repeat!")
Alien's mantra of "Spring break … spring break forever!" shows that brainless hedonism and behaving without consideration of consequence isn't limited to college kids, and his lifestyle -- equally dangerous and ludicrous -- feels like the logical conclusion of the road the girls are on: They preen and grind on each other for a leering camera that isn't there, while he constantly acts like he's on an episode of either "Cribs" (MTV again!) or "Cops."
This stands among Franco's finest work; his Alien is a character who's going to be imitated and quoted a great deal in years to come, but he invests in this ludicrous creation, riding a fine line between a lost soul and a caricature. The actresses also commit to their roles, although Hudgens' attempts to be a grown-up sexpot (both here and in the regrettable "Sucker Punch") pale next to her little-seen turn as a hilariously deadpan Daria type in "Bandslam."
As for Korine -- this is a filmmaker whose work I've found profoundly annoying over the years. (Yes, I didn't see "Trash Humpers," but after enduring "Gummo," "Julien Donkey-Boy" and "Mr. Lonely," I gave myself a break.) His tendency to turn his subjects into freaks doesn't feel as irritating here, mainly because spring break itself is already such a freakshow that there's little he can do but document it.
He overdoes the ironic counterpoints (scenes of mayhem are narrated by innocuous phone calls home or by Britney Spears tunes) and foreshadowing (Hudgens spends way too much of the early part of the film shooting imaginary guns), but "Spring Breakers" is a tone poem of excess that can be read as blistering satire, cautionary tale or even lament over the commodification of wildness.
This ain't "Where the Boys Are," but this wild and occasionally wearying road trip has other destinations in mind.