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Review: Big Sur

Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K

Pat King reviews the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and received a limited nationwide release last year. You can read his review of another Kerouac adaptation, On the Road, here.


I’ve read a few reviews on Michael Polish’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, and it’s really perplexed me that the biggest complaint about the movie is that it relies too heavily on voice-over. I don’t get it. Seems to me Michael Polish wanted to make a movie that heavily relied on voice-over. I mean, it’s a little like complaining that the grape juice you just bought isn’t orange juice, right?. It’s really not cool to go negative on a work of art just because it does something that you personally would rather it not do. But shouldn’t we really just judge a film by whether it accomplishes what it set out to do, rather than what we wish it had done, what our version of the film would have been?

As for me, it seems like Polish made the film he set out to. Something like long a music video except that we get, you know, beautiful words instead. (It should be noted that the actual score is minimal and unobtrusive, and quite good.) Considering the words being spoken come from Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name, I don’t think we’re getting a bad deal. Jean-Marc Barr, who plays Kerouac, is essentially doing an hour and a half of spoken word on top of playing the brooding main character. Quite a heavy load, but Barr really captures the rhythm and tone of Kerouac’s reading voice. Barr must have studied Kerouac’s spoken word records closely because if you close your eyes, you can easily mistake his voice for Kerouac’s own. Kerouac had a very distinctive reading voice that, like his prose, was heavily influenced by his Jazz heroes; their music and the way they talked. Barr really understands the musical quality of both Kerouac’s words and the way he performed them.

In a perfect world, nobody would even attempt to translate Kerouac’s work to the screen because, like Joyce, his works are the very essence of “literary.” They celebrate language, above all, and totally discard any pretense of objectivity. I don’t see how you could possibly make a film adaptation of his work without at least using some voice over. Anyway, I think you get my point. The movie works as is.

The plot, such as it is, concerns three short trips that Kerouac took to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur during the summer of 1960. The first trip he took alone, for the next two he was accompanied by friends. It had been just three years after Kerouac had achieved worldwide fame after the release of his novel, On the Road. Success changes everyone, but in Kerouac’s case it had changed him for the worse. Much worse. Even though Kerouac had been hoping for literary success for most of his life, when it finally came he was unprepared for the media sensationalism that accompanied it. After all, instead of being recognized for his literary accomplishments, he and his friends were labeled “Beatniks,” caricatured, and treated terribly by the media. All Kerouac really wanted to do was lead a worldwide spiritual awakening. Instead, he became the subject of trash journalism. It was more than he could handle and so he dove straight into the only thing that seemed to dull his pain: the bottle. He had almost certainly been an alcoholic before, but by the time this story takes place, he had become a sad, uncontrollable addict. It was the beginning of a slow and miserable decline which would end in Kerouac’s death nine years later, just before his 50th birthday. Big Sur, both the novel and the film, are about Kerouac reaching into the depths of his unconscious to give us a frank and mournful account of a good man’s decline as he suffers through the terror of delirium tremens.

Jean-Marc Barr gives us an absolutely stunning performance as Jack Kerouac. For the first time, someone had the good sense to cast an actor who actually looks like Kerouac, albeit the aging, hard drinking man he had become in his declining years. By this time, Kerouac’s boyish good looks had long passed him by and his years of hard drinking had taken their toll on him physically, and especially mentally. Barr really captures the sadness and the anguish of a man who has grown truly weary of life.

Really, there wasn’t a single bad performance in the lot. Kate Bosworth is a standout as Billie, the lover of both Jack Kerouac and his longtime friend (and idol), Neal Cassady. Bilie’s a new-agey proto-hippie type who, although she can be a bit starry-eyed and loopy at times, is nonetheless much more grounded and in control than Kerouac. And speaking of Neal Cassady, Josh Lucas’s portrayal of the guy was far superior to Garrett Hedlund’s portrayal of the character in On the Road. A nod should also be given to Patrick Fischler, who plays the hopped-up, hyper, ADD poet Lew Welch. When the actors are actually given lines to speak, his are some of the most fun to watch.

Honestly, I think Big Sur is the best Beat Generation movie so far. An amazing feat considering that this is one of the darkest, most unforgiving books of that era. It would have been a lot easier to make a movie about the younger, more wide-eyed and romantic Beats. Hell, most of films about the Beat Generation (documentaries excluded) take place before any of these guys had become famous. This is a movie about a crack-up, the beginning of a long and painful decline, a brilliant mind snuffing itself out, committing slow suicide. I recommend this movie highly, and with great enthusiasm. It’s not uplifting, but it’s honest and filled with a melancholy beauty that is honest about its intentions and fulfills its promise.