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American enfant terrible Harmony Korine's characters are all so self-absorbed that they never quite realize just how freakish they are. The sideshow characters in "Spring Breakers" are prettier than Korine's usual protagonists, especially when compared to the Halloween-mask-clad stars of his last film, "Trash Humpers." But that difference only accentuates the joke that Korine ("Gummo," "Mister Lonely") leans too hard on throughout "Spring Breakers": here are attractive monsters. Their primary aspirations in life are to doff their clothes, take drugs and generally push themselves to new levels of MTV-approved Bacchanalian debauchery.
So, Korine's latest is a characteristically serious film about inherently ridiculous characters, but it's too montonous to be really thoughtful or funny. Korine genuinely loves the amoral posturing of his bikini-clad, thrill-seeking co-ed protagonists, but eventually it all feels like too much of the same thing. "Spring Breakers" has moments as provocatively clever as Korine's better works, but its mainly attractive for its abundant superficial pleasures.
Four nubile college students dream of bass-heavy pop music, day-glo bikinis, and booze-soaked simulations of sex. They want to be objectified, to put themselves in positions where they're assumed to be naive and insanely over-sexed eye candy. Spring break is, as Faith (Selena Gomez) puts it, the girls' chance to see things that they've never seen before, an understatement given how lost in the Floridian funhouse they eventually get.
The girls save up money, but discover that they don't have even half of what they need. So, out of sheer boredom and desperation, and armed with balaclavas, hammers, and (realistic-looking) toy guns, they rob a nearby diner. This is the first transgressive act that the quartet commits, and therefore the most shocking. Maybe the these girls-behaving-badly aren't as phony as they seem. They tease each other and the people around them but only because they ironically treat the real danger that they routinely put themselves in like, as one girl puts it, a video game. While easily ignoring the fratboys who routinely hit them up for sex, the girls become prey for more serious thugs, like James Franco's Alien, a gun-toting rapper who gives voice to the group's mantra: "Spring break forever."
At what point does simulated/learned behavior end, and innate personality take over? That's the most exciting thing about "Spring Breakers" — not just the role-reversals, but the characters' uneasy attempts at becoming the people they're posing as.
Still, even that main theme gets annoying after a while because Korine doesn't develop it; he just repeats it. The click of a lighter as it heats up a bong, amplified to the point where it sounds like a gun being cocked, makes for an effective transition between scenes — but it loses impact after three, four, then five times. By that point it's apparent that the noise is just a meaningless gimmick.
Likewise, the members of Korine's quartet are pretty much interchangeable. Faith, The Virginal One, is the only one who really stands out. Faith is inevitably the first to bridle at Korine's image of spring break as a lascivious day-glo gauntlet of throbbing body parts. "Spring Breakers" doesn't follow a conventional plot, but each new encounter tests the girls' collective resolve until they eventually become supporting characters in their own story. At that point, Alien becomes the film's main subject since he assumes he's an idol to the girls. But as a grill-sporting hustler who crows about the bundles of cash, weed, and guns he owns, Alien's just an intermediary step between the girls and Archie (Gucci Mane), the drug dealer/pimp who taught Alien how to be a real "gangsta" (ie: to treat Brian DePalma's "Scarface" as both a masterpiece and a way of life).
By refusing to out-and-out say that Alien's role model is just as inauthentic as he is, Korine proves that his film's ideas about authenticity are mostly reliant on titillating suggestion. It doesn't really matter how Archie learned to act phony because by the time he shows up in "Spring Breakers," Korine's pretty much made his skimpy point. There are effectively disturbing — part-funny, part-scary — scenes throughout the film, as when Alien heartily fellates two guns leveled at his head, or when Alien and the girls perform Britney Spear's "Everytime" in a musical montage that has them singing on the beach, and robbing people in a video game arcade at the same time. But that's all the movie has to reveal: a food-chain of fakers.