I had some doubts before sitting down to watch another Jack Kerouac film adaptation, this time of his autobiographical novel “Big Sur”. I was disappointed with last year’s “On the Road” and after this unintentional, if chronologically correct follow up, I’ve decided that it’s probably time to stop trying to put Kerouac and the Beats on the big screen. Even if you have the best intentions, like director Michael Polish does here.
The story is set three years after the publication and success of “On the Road” crowned Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) King of the Beatniks. He’s unhappy, having serious post-fame difficulties, tortured by self-doubt and the impossibly over-romanticized expectations of others. He’s also an advanced stage alcoholic on the verge of a dramatic nosedive towards a complete mental breakdown. Or worse.
“All over America,” we watch him type and later narrate, “high school and college kids thinking ‘Jack Kerouac is 26 years old and on the road all the time hitchhiking’ while there I am almost 40 years old, bored and jaded.”
He decides a getaway might salvage and even lift his spirits, and accepts an invitation to his pal Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (Anthony Edwards) rustic cabin at Big Sur on the central California coast. The majesty and seclusion of the Pacific paradise seems to do him well for a few days but he quickly grows bored and returns to San Francisco where his bevy of enablers welcome him with open arms, bottles and glasses in hand. His rapid descent continues, taking the film with it in the same direction.
Instead of probing why such a talented mind would choose to chart a self-destructive course, we instead just watch him and his buddies — poets Michael McClure (Balthazar Getty), Philip Whalen (Henry Thomas) and Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler) –drink, sleep, and drink some more. And listen to him talk. And then talk some more.
The main problem, one that quickly grows from a bothersome distraction to one that overwhelms the entire production, is Polish’s decision to use narration to guide and tell the story. Words are taken directly from the novel and imposed over nearly every scene, forcing the actors to react to that narration instead of interpreting the work in the first place. You want to watch Kerouac’s interaction with buddy Neil Cassady (Josh Lucas), not listen to him tell it. You want to see the voices inside his head, not hear the words Kerouac put to paper. The narration actually lessens the potency of the words, rendering entire passages as meaningless blather. It’s a shame, too, because the cast work quite well with what little they’re given to do.
That’s not to say that the movie isn’t worth watching. It’s beautifully shot. The shoreline, the massive redwoods, the brooding fog, and the serene isolation all conspire to create a powerful illustration of the Big Sur area. It makes for a lovely book cover design. Unfortunately, it’s a book that’s missing several pages.
One of the trailers, below: