Adapting Jack Kerouac’s late-career novel Big Sur (1962) proves an awkward challenge for director-screenwriter Michael Polish. It will be essential viewing for fans of Jack Kerouac, however fewer in number that group may be in 2013 when the once-pervasive influence of the Beat Generation seems far, far away.
Arriving on the heels of the long-belated screen version of Kerouac’s On the Road (directed by Walter Salles), which was released earlier this year, Big Sur pales by comparison.
Filmmaker most renowned for his promising 1999 debut feature Twin Falls Idaho takes an all-too-literal narrative approach that favors voiceover where a more imaginative use of filmic storytelling would have been better suited to Kerouac’s alcohol-fueled stream-of-consciousness search for reinventing or destroying his identity as a writer – depending on his ever-darkening mood.
Kerouac’s book is, after all, a brief memoir about a literary icon burning out at time when college students around the world still pictured his long-defunct roustabout persona hitching rides across an America that no longer existed.
Jean-Marc Barr (The Big Blue) embodies Jack Kerouac’s alter ego Jack Duloz with a graceful authority necessary to the role. The movie finds Jack living and breathing an internal monologue of anxious depression. His loyal friend and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards) offers to let Jack stay at his remote cabin tucked beneath Bixby Bridge in the hopes that Jack will get sober and return to writing. However, it wears thin. Jack yearns for the noisy bars and familiar camaraderie of San Francisco’s North Beach.
Jack’s once limitless friendship with his best friend Neal Cassidy (memorably played by Josh Lucas) takes a dark turn after Neal introduces Jack to his mistress Billie (Kate Bosworth), who responds more amorously to Jack than the free-loving Neal can comfortably swallow. Jealousies ignite. Jack brings a group of his friends back to Big Sur for a communal vacation that opens up divisions in friendships. Something is bound to break.
Audiences unfamiliar with the progenitor of the Beat Generation will be left to ponder what the big deal was if discovering Jack Kerouac for the first time via Polish’s version ofBig Sur. Kerouac himself realized the dated nature of his individual literary voice, which by 1960 had been co-opted by copycat wannabes that he struggled for the resonance of original ideas that had once flowed so easily.
BIG SUR (2 ½) Directed by Michael Polish • Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Kate Bosworth, Anthony Edwards, Josh Lucas • Rated R • 74 min. • At Osio Cinemas