Grim, idiosyncratic and paralyzed with ennui, Big Sur lives up to the four most deterrent words in contemporary cinema: “Big hit at Sundance!” It’s yet another in an endless stream of movies nobody wants to see about Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, this time based on one of his least known, most cynical novels. The movie takes liberties but basically follows the same trajectory—a hapless chronicle of the final years in a miserable, hedonistic life marked by success without fulfillment, fame without recompense, sex without love, and words without meaning. Most of Kerouac’s writing was about self-serving literary heroism. Big Sur is about failure, despair and disillusionment. From 1980’s Heart Beat, about Kerouac, up to and including last year’s On the Road, no movie made from anything written by the Beats has ever been a hit. Big Sur is no reversal of fortune.
In 1960, unable to cope with the literary phenomenon of On the Road, Kerouac (a seriously miscast Jean-Marc Barr) retreats to a cabin on the Monterey Peninsula owned by San Francisco bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Mentally and physically deteriorating from advanced stages of alcoholism and drug addiction, he keeps a diary about the restorative nature of the woods and surf. But 3,000 miles from Long Island, where he lived with his mother and his cat ever since the publication of On the Road three years earlier, Kerouac was burned out, jaded and almost 40 years old, driven nearly mad by reporters, talk-show requests, fan mail and the intrusion of strangers. Desperately in need of isolation, quiet and the absence of ringing phones, he was rescued by Ferlinghetti, who found him unconscious on the floor of a Skid Row flophouse and shipped him off to the wilderness of Big Sur. In the cabin, away from fellow beatniks, junkies, drunks and partygoers, he finds his solace. But it’s not enough. After four days, he’s so bored that he heads back to San Francisco. The map in his head leads to his best friend and On the Road traveling companion Neal Cassady (the ever charismatic Josh Lucas), fresh out of San Quentin. He loves Neal (in more ways than one, some biographies suggest) but resents his appearance of “normalcy” with three kids and loyal wife Carolyn (the excellent Radha Mitchell). On three separate visits to Big Sur, Kerouac’s resentment grows until he beds Neal’s mistress, Billie (Kate Bosworth), and then mischievously introduces her to Carolyn. A vicious portrait emerges of a despicable character drifting toward inevitable self-destruction without purpose or passion. He calls himself a “language spinner,” and it’s true that the words make you dizzy. But what do they mean? Fans of all that beatnik self-indulgence find a literary significance in Kerouac’s writing that has always eluded me. Apparently, they eventually wore out the author, too. The deadly screenplay, in the form of voice-over narration, is culled by writer-director Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho) from the verbose novel without regard for an audience’s patience.
Example: “I’m bound up inside, like constipation. … Everyone’s saying, ‘Oh, how wonderful life is—how miraculous! God’s made this and God’s made that.’ How do you know He doesn’t hate what He did? He might even be drunk and not noticing what He went and done.”
“Maybe God is dead.”
“No, God can’t be dead, because he’s the unborn. I realize I’ve been playing all my life like a happy child with words, words, words. … Don’t you see? All my philosophies are just empty words!”
You can say that again. Don’t worry if you don’t connect. There’s nothing to connect to. The characters are never developed, and nothing ever happens. The film has a restless, nomadic quality similar to Kerouac’s lifestyle, but there’s no there there. Such a surfeit of ranting despair and self-pity led to a nervous breakdown that signaled the end of the Beat Generation. Big Sur, published in 1962, seven years before Kerouac’s death at age 47, is about a once-revered writer among rebellious college kids who ends up tired and just wants to sleep. After enduring this movie, I sympathize completely.
Directed by: Michael Polish
Written by: Michael Polish
Starring: Stana Katic, Radha Mitchell and Kate Bosworth
Running time: 100 min.