Kerouac is beaten-down king of the Beats in ‘Big Sur’

The OregonianJanuary 10, 2014 

Jean-Marc Barr stars as Jack Kerouac in “Big Sur,” which is based on the author’s novel of the same name.


When I’m the Emperor of Cinema, there will be no more clicking typewriters in movies about writers. This boring waste of screen time will go into the Cliché Scrap Heap, along with shots of writers staring at typewriters, writers staring at the ocean and writers staring into space.

There are lots of clicking typewriters in “Big Sur,” and lots of long shots of Jack Kerouac gazing at the sky, smoking a cigarette and scowling at the voices in his head. But wait — those aren’t voices in his head, that’s his voice, reading from his novel in a voice-over that drowns out one of the best elements of the movie, the soundtrack by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National.

Kerouac’s novel “Big Sur” is wordy, and writer-director Michael Polish treats every word as if it’s spun gold, shinier and more beautiful than Kate Bosworth’s golden hair. Polish and Bosworth fell in love while making “Big Sur,” and he makes sure she looks gorgeous while delivering lines like “Neal has got to learn to control the enormous forces that run wild inside of him.”

Bosworth plays Billie, the love interest of Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) and Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas). Yes, it’s another movie about Kerouac and Cassady and the Beats, only instead of the hepped-up youngsters from last year’s “On the Road” (the novel as American Apparel ad), these are the burnt-out Beats of “Big Sur” (the novel as North Face ad). The premise is potentially interesting — Kerouac, scarred by the overnight success of “On the Road” and drinking heavily, retreats to a cabin in the wilderness — but there’s not enough story to sustain it and Polish is too love-drunk on Kerouac’s prose to lighten up and give his movie a chance to breathe.

Nothing happens in “Big Sur,” and it doesn’t happen fast. Kerouac retreats to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin but gets bored and goes to San Francisco for a bender. He meets up with his Beat buddies Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler), Philip Whalen (Henry Thomas), Michael McClure (Balthazar Getty) and Cassady, who’s stuck in Los Gatos with his wife, Carolyn (Radha Mitchell), but pining for Billie in the city. They go back and forth from San Francisco to Big Sur as Kerouac slides downhill.

Some of the performances — Mitchell, Fischler and especially Lucas — are lively, but Barr never gets under Kerouac’s skin to show the pain of an artist who can’t hold his life together. It’s a tragedy played entirely on the surface. When Billie says to Jack “you’re just tired of life and you want to sleep,” you’ll know exactly what she means.

(The best line in “Big Sur” — “one fast move or I’m gone” – is the title of an album by Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard, big Kerouac fans. It’s worth a listen.)


* * *

Cast: Jean-Marc Barr, Josh Lucas, Kate Bosworth, Stana Katic, Radha Mitchell, Anthony Edwards, John Robinson, Patrick Fischler, Henry Thomas, Balthazar Getty

Director: Michael Polish

Running time: 1:40

Rated: R; language, some sexuality and nudity

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