Big Sur

2013, Movie, R, 100 mins

Review

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Jack Kerouac published his roman à clef Big Sur in 1962 -- a point perched midway between the picaresque, freewheeling perambulations of On the Road and the cirrhosis that led to the author's death in St. Petersburg, FL, in October 1969. The text, with its thinly veiled fictionalizations of real-life belletrists, follows Jack Duluoz (a stand-in for Kerouac) as he enters a self-imposed exile at a friend's rural cabin on the North California coast. Once there, he contemplates the nature of his own celebrity, temporarily drifts back to the joys of the early Beat years, and ultimately experiences an almost complete emotional and mental dissolution.

 

As written and directed by Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho), the 2013 adaptation of Big Sur dispenses with the novel's pseudonyms and has the actors playing the real-life literary figures. Narratively, it plunges into Kerouac's mind and never abandons his perspective. To achieve this, Polish loads the soundtrack with nonstop monologues pulled from Kerouac's tome, and fills the frame with almost psychedelic natural imagery that aptly recalls the free association of the text in its booze- and uppers-fueled mode. Per the gossamery quality of Kerouac's writing, the filmmaker also liberates the movie from more conventional narrative structures: An episodic picture if ever there were one, it glides from the Big Sur retreat to a series of spontaneous road trips with the Beat writers to a particularly effective subplot that has Jack struggling with a psychic breakdown and creative block during a relationship with his lover Billie (Kate Bosworth).

 

To Polish's credit, he comes far closer to cinematically realizing the effervescent spirit of Kerouac's writing than Walter Salles Jr. and Francis Ford Coppola did with their arch, wooden adaptation of On the Road. If that picture felt too conservative and safe -- if it desperately needed to take the same cinematographic and stylistic risks that Kerouac did on the page -- the same can't be said of this cinematization, which turns visual free association into a guiding principle. Also, unlike the Coppola/Salles picture, the Polish movie nails Kerouac's paradigm in its many different guises, including the exhilaration of his road cruises with his buddies, the zen of his naturalism, and his creative impotence and inner sexual death.

 

Those assets shouldn't be underestimated, particularly in light of the many individuals over the years who have branded Kerouac's work "unfilmable"; Polish proves them wrong. And the lead performances are outstanding across the board. Jean-Marc Barr evokes the real Kerouac (visually and emotionally) with such approximation that we may feel we're watching a documentary, and Bosworth beautifully and cleanly portrays the emotional persuasiveness of Billie as she tries unsuccessfully to get Kerouac to make a lifelong romantic commitment to her and abandon his countercultural ways.

 

But those strengths notwithstanding, the movie has its share of flaws. Polish enlists a small gallery of wonderful character actors, including Anthony Edwards (as Lawrence Ferlinghetti) and Henry Thomas (as Philip Whalen), but they are so underutilized that they almost feel like disappearing acts. Conceptually speaking, one can understand the rationale behind this: Because the movie exists entirely in Jack's mind, we don't really need to see more of these individuals. But the casting of well-known actors hurts the film: We recognize these players and want to see more of them by virtue of their natural charisma. The movie also fails in terms of the quantity of soundtrack narration that it hands to us. As mentioned, it does help depict Kerouac's inner spirit and mind-set, but it also overwhelms us to the point of exhaustion; we get so many monologues that we may feel like we're watching a "Visually Annotated Big Sur," not unlike the awful "Visual Bibles" that pair an image with every verse in the Christian gospels and leave no room for interpretation on the part of the audience. And although the movie has many emotionally involving sequences -- particularly some fabulous comedic set pieces involving the early stages of Kerouac's crack-up, and the final quarrels between Jack and Billie -- it desperately needs more closure than it provides to us; it merely ends with a stream-of-consciousness monologue over a close-up of Barr's face that does nothing to convincingly resolve the internal conflicts in Kerouac which Polish sets up. In fact, it almost feels as if someone truncated the last act. When the final credits roll, we can't quite believe that the movie is over; we feel cheated.

 

Miscalculations aside, though, this is a bold and brazen picture with elements of mad genius. It's a crazy man's film, but no less welcome for being so, and despite its significant problems it’s often quite enjoyable. It may not constitute the perfect Kerouac adaptation, but it gets enough about Jack and his craftsmanship right that fans of the legendary author will likely feel a sense of vindication.

leave a comment --Nathan Southern

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