How to Survive the Lawless, Fantasy Movie World Called Florida

By  · Published on April 30th, 2013

“Kim Jong-un doesn’t understand that we aren’t afraid of him. What that guy doesn’t get is that we already have an unstable peninsula that will ultimately bring down America. It’s called Florida.”

The above quote comes from Conan O’Brian’s keynote speech at Saturday night’s Whitehouse Correspondents’ Dinner. O’Brien, of course, doesn’t explain the joke. He doesn’t need to. Not because he’s referencing a specific, recent event in Florida, but because the joke taps into a vast catalog of associations with Florida as a whole. It’s hard to pinpoint one adjective that adequately describes the ways in which Florida’s culture appears to the rest of the nation, but The Sunshine State is certainly in a class all its own.

On the one hand, Florida made news this past year for its absurd, unjustifiable gun laws, its bureaucratic bulwarks against democratic participation, and even its cannibals. But in less serious terms, Florida is also known for hosting an astonishing number of bizarre petty crimes and a few emerging one-of-a-kind industries. Many lists, articles, editorials, and even a Twitter feed chronicling the life of the worst superhero ever have all taken part in attempting to surmise why, exactly, the Florida is so damned special.

But perhaps recent movies that take place (and were shot on location in) Florida provide the real keys to understanding the idiosyncratic culture of Voldemort’s state. Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain is the third of a string of high-profile films to investigate the lives of that routinely exceptional brand of person known as The Floridian. Steven Soderbergh’s Tampa-set Magic Mike, Harmony Korine’s St. Petersburg-set Spring Breakers, and the Miami-set Pain and Gain not only highlight the details of their respective Sunshine State locales, but each do so while exploring shared themes: the relentless search for the American Dream in a landscape of neon lights, fit bodies, and bad news.

The Floridian American Dream

“The law says do not touch, but I see a lot of law breakers in here,” Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas tells a full house of adoring clients in the male stripper dramedy Magic Mike. The sentiment, however, speaks to these three Florida movies at large, all of which have characters that acknowledge (to some degree) the parameters of legal and good behavior, and choose to cross or thrust around that line considerably. What little drama there is in Magic Mike concerns shady business deals and excessive use of recreational drugs. In Spring Breakers, a quartet of young women throw law and order out the window as they pursue their dream vacation, eventually finding themselves fully enmeshed in a criminal underworld. Pain and Gain’s trio of hapless, meat-headed criminals take a step-by-step approach to compromising every common-sense notion of basic human decency in order to execute half-cooked plans and desperately cover past errors.

In all scenarios, Florida itself is perceived and depicted as an alternately utopian/dystopian netherworld in which basic regulations of human behavior need not apply. Spring Breakers immerses itself most into this hedonist fantasy; while Magic Mike renders stark the contrast between the boundless playfulness of nightlife and the unpromising reality of daytime; and Pain and Gain stands as the one film in the bunch that finds the rule of law threatening the characters’ coastal fantasy most directly. Between strip clubs, boozy beach parties, and hip gyms, the work/leisure life of the Floridian is the place where play can quickly turn into danger.

“Fantasy” is the operative word here, as each of these films pointedly chronicle their respective protogonists’ search for the American Dream. Magic Mike is the most sincere in this regard, wherein Channing Tatum’s title character seeks to use his stripper earnings in order to sell handmade furniture for a living – to “go legit,” in the eyes of his peers. Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo doesn’t intend to pursue a certain occupation as his means toward an American dream, but sees it as an entitlement to reach at the end of a series of self-help seminars and protein shakes. (Both Tatum and Wahlberg are rejected by loan officers in the pursuit of their big-D-Dream). Wahlberg’s Lugo cites the anti-heroes of Scarface and the Godfather films as role models while willfully forgetting the unenviable fates of those iconic characters. James Franco’s Alien of Spring Breakers shares Lugo’s affinity for Miami semi-citizen Tony Montana, and similarly realizes his version of the American Dream realized through possessions (“look at all my shit!”) acquired through means other than a legitimized form of American entrepreneurship.

Magic Mike inevitably realizes his step-ladder dream, while the reach of Lugo and Alien exceeds their respective grasps (a phrase that Lugo quotes but doesn’t understand). While Magic Mike is a light, fluffy, almost-no-stakes charm offensive, and Spring Breakers is an alienating, distancing, and deliberately bizarre as anything Korine has made (yet with more advertising money), Pain and Gain provides a deeply ironic and starkly cynical examination of the elusive terms of the fantasy of American social mobility, an inversion of the American Dream from the filmmaker who once placed oil drillers on a comet in the name of patriotism.

Magnetic Sunshine and Fictional Tanning

Wahlberg’s Lugo is a deeply troubled individual, both prone to terrible bouts of anger and exceeding in unchecked confidence. The Rock’s Paul Doyle is somewhat more sympathetic to the degree that he possesses a modicum of empathy, but he also embodies an important duality of American identity: he is prone to both excessive consumption and skin-deep evangelism. It’s a strange thing for a major studio and a name director to make a film with two charismatic leading male stars that have very few, if any, redeeming qualities. But Wahlberg and The Rock maintain their magnetism even when engaging in despicable, unimaginable acts. Such is the draw and intrigue of Florida itself.

And this leads to another important aspect connecting all of these films: their complex relationship to reality. Magic Mike is a pseudo-biopic of Channing Tatum’s prior career as a stripper. The film, in true Soderbergh fashion, is appropriately pared down: instead of becoming a famous actor, Tatum’s alter ego starts an artisanal furniture business, the modest American Dream for a post-2008 economy. There’s also the question of the quality of the strip club itself. The $7 million film, despite its comparable stylistic restraint, is a Hollywood-ized fantasy of a Tampa male strip club, one more readymade for the prime time metropolitan stage than rooted in the reality of Florida’s gulf coast nightlife.

Spring Breakers, of course, is not based on a true story, but it does present itself as a reaction to and a depiction of an underexamined facet of American college culture. The film also mixes cultural icons of the Southern coast: Franco’s Alien is modeled partly off Houston-based rapper Riff Raff. The city of St. Petersburg assembled a light public relations counter-attack to the film’s depiction of a place seemingly without rules of any sort, with St. Pete’s mayor urging local residents to be wary of seeing the film, and news outlets explaining ways in which certain events depicted in the film could not happen within the legal structures of the city. Spring Breakers arguably depicts a college culture in the era of Girl Gone Wild with some disturbing verisimilitude, but perhaps not with respect to its given location.

With Pain and Gain, the devil is in the details. David Chen of /film surveys several important differences between the film and the real-life events that inspired the series of news stories it was based upon. But Bay’s greatest criticisms in terms of his film’s relationship to reality primarily surrounds the issue of tone: his approach to a series of horrifically violent real-life events as something of a (admittedly, very dark) comedy. While I’m not one to defend Michael Bay, such a criticism confuses “comedy” with “making light of,” when in fact, the dark humor injected into the film’s absurd events can make the horrifying nature of the actions depicted come across even more strongly, and appropriately absurd, especially as we develop initally ambivalent and ultimately antagonistic relationships to the film’s primary characters. Pain and Gain strikes a tone consistent with popular reactions to several of the most abject stories that have emerged from Florida in recent years: disgust coupled with enduring fascination.

Seeing Through Sunglasses

But the importance that the strained relationship each of these films have with the reality they seek to depict speaks to the fact that neither Magic Mike nor Spring Breakers nor Pain and Gain “just so happen” to take place in Florida – they are reactions to and attempted representations of particularly Floridian histories and stereotypes about crime and culture. These visions of the American Dream couldn’t possibly come from anywhere else.

Florida is an incredibly diverse state. It has a notable plurality of intersecting cultures and ethnicities and no distinct or consistent political ties (it’s been an important swing state in every recent election). The culture and character of its regions are starkly different from one another (South and North Florida are practically two different states), and it’s located geographically in the American South without being rigidly identified as a “Southern state.”

Florida, a state with no drought of stories, possesses its own unique identity, and as such there is no “one Florida” to represent in movies. It’s this seemingly contradictory, multifaceted nature of the state that makes Florida an interesting, unique, and sometimes troubling place to explore. Surviving its cinematic counterpart means riding the wave of lawlessness without getting in too deep, having a modestly attainable goal, and probably steering clear of Dexter Morgan.

Ultimately, Florida demonstrates the idiom that truth can be stranger than fiction, and I assume we’ll be seeing more flicks about The Sunshine State soon. Maybe even a superhero movie featuring Florida Man.

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