Spring Breakers: James Franco as the Wizard of Odd

Harmony Korine's lurid Florida frolic gets its comedy juice from the fun the star has playing a crazed gangsta

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Muse Productions

His real name is Al, but the Tampa gangsta drugsta played by James Franco calls himself Alien. Sporting elaborate cornrows and front teeth studded with more grillwork than a ’58 Plymouth, Alien is a man in love with his stuff: his gun-bedecked walls, his bed “that’s an art piece,” his constantly running loop of the 1983 Florida crime classic Scarface. (Maybe he never got to the end of the movie.) Put another way, he’s the Wizard of Oz in his own crazy, Day-Glo kingdom, and instead of Munchkins he’s got a posse of hot chicks. “Bikinis and big booties, y’all,” Alien proclaims. “That’s what life is about.”

It is, at least, during the months-long rite of passion known as spring break. Needing little urging from the gentlemen on Florida’s Gulf Coast, young women booze on the beach, merrily expose their siliconed breasts and fellate red-white-and-blue lollipops, all to fulfill the hedonistic edicts of Girls Gone Wild videos and MTV. They act silly; you can watch.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Oz the Great and Powerful)

Spring Breakers, written and directed by Harmony Korine, operates under two pretenses: that it’s a more extreme version of spring-break movies that stretch back at least half a century, to the sedate dating of 1960’s Where the Boys Are, and that it’s a satire of the genre — indeed, of the American dream of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and eternal nubility.

But the movie, the most accessible in the oeuvre of the 40-year-old who really was an enfant terrible when, back in the early ’90s, he wrote the script for Kids — Larry Clark’s teen-AIDS outrage — has a little too much fun exploiting the milieu it may be trying to mock. Spring Breakers is a canny mixture of satire and sellout — if there’s even a difference between the two in a movie age where excess and irony have become incestuous twins.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Kids)

Say this for the writer-director: he scored several artistic coups, none of them having much to do with what’s onscreen. He signed Franco for the Alien role and corralled three young graduates of well-scrubbed TV shows — Selena Gomez, from the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place; Vanessa Hudgens of Disney’s High School Musical films; and Ashley Benson of the ABC Family Channel’s Pretty Little Liars — to dance around in skimpies. Two of them mime smoking dope and lesbonic kissing.

Gomez plays the pointedly named Faith, who is part of a Christian sect and the college friend of Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife). She’s known them for years, she tells her skeptical evangelical cohorts; these girls are good people. Faith should have trusted in the skepticism of her grumpy co-religionists. Yea, I say unto thee, her friends are the demon spawn.

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Stuck at school and short on cash, Candy, Cotty and Brit raise money for the trip to Florida by donning ski masks, talking like rap masters and robbing the patrons of a Chicken Shack. Once in Tampa, with Faith in tow, they party their way into jail. There they are bailed out by Alien, who takes them on as his posse in a turf battle with archrival Archie (rapper Gucci Mane). Faith sees the light and heads for home, another girl takes a bullet, and the remaining pair turn out to be gunslingers of the most violent order.

A pop-art junk movie, Spring Breakers does reveal an artist at work: French cinematographer Benoît Debie, who filmed Gaspar Noé’s truly transgressive Irréversible and Enter the Void. Saturating the images with a neon tinge and supervising a sensational reverse-crane shot of revelers by the hundreds at a pool party, Debie gives Spring Breakers a great look, even if the movie’s mind is nearly as wasted as Alien’s.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Enter the Void)

Destructive kids with wasted minds were the focus of Korine’s last effort, the suicidal-career movie Trash Humpers, which the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman described as “a spectacle to be watched in a wino stupor” (and he meant that as a compliment). This 2009 film showed young renegades in old-people masks doing rude things, including purporting to have sex with a trash bin, to live out their motto of “Make it, don’t fake it.” Trash Humpers at least had the artistic courage of its own lunatic convictions; Spring Breakers revels in its shimmering sham. It’s mostly trash about humpers.

The humpster-in-chief here is Franco, who lends Alien an insane, intoxicating level of commitment that he couldn’t quite manage as the Wizard of Disney’s gargantuan epic. When Alien sits at his grand piano and plays Britney Spears’ “Everytime” as the girls cavort in pink ski masks, Spring Breakers nearly achieves the sense of delirium it wants to instill in its gawkers. It becomes the James Franco March movie you ought to see.