January 30, 2013



Maybe it’s time for a filmmaker who doesn’t give a damn about the Beat Generation to make the next movie about them.  Michael Polish’s BIG SUR joins last year’s On the Road as a Jack Kerouac adaptation that’s gorgeously filmed, performed with seriousness and commitment, and dramatically paralyzed.  (I missed this year’s other Sundance contribution to the Beat movie ouevre, Kill Your Darlings, which features Jack Huston as Kerouac and Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg.)

Big Sur is far more self-consciously arty than On the Road.  It’s almost an illustrated reading, with Jean-Marc Barr, who plays Kerouac, reciting at great length from Kerouac’s novel of the same name via voice-over narration (although the passages from the book are altered to use real names, rather than the novel’s fictional equivalents), while we watch images of the characters, pausing only once in a while for full-fledged dramatic scenes with dialogue.  (The opening narration alone must run close to 10 minutes of the 90 minute screen time.)   The time is 1960, a few years after On the Road was published, making Kerouac into an instant cultural sensation.   Between the pressure of so much public attention and his own tendency to drink heavily, Kerouac is barely able to function, and he travels west to see his friends.  The minimal narrative revolves around Kerouac’s visits to a Big Sur cabin owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards), at first in a solitary attempt to dry out, then with various of his companions.

A candy-box of Beat personages appear, not just Neal Cassidy (Josh Lucas) and his wife Carolyn (Radha Mitchell) and mistress Billie (Kate Bosworth), but poets Michael McClure (Balthazar Getty), Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler) and Philip Whalen (Henry Thomas), among others.  They all drink enough to provide the pounding waves around the cabin, and they speak like characters in novels.  Eventually, Kerouac gets involved with Cassidy’s mistress Billie and her young son, seemingly more because of his ambivalent feelings about Cassidy than for anything to do with Billie herself (he forces an awkward meeting between Billie, Jack and Carolyn), and then he breaks up with her.  Much of the film, though, is devoted to shots of the surf and woods (the rich, vibrant photography is by M. David Mullen, who’s worked with Polish on several previous films), and of Kerouac staring mournfully and/or pensively out at them.

There’s something odd about the fact that the historical personages in Lincoln have far more vitality than anyone in either On the Road or Big Sur.  Kerouac, Cassidy and the other Beat figures are treated with such delicate respect, their very delirium tremens and nausea observed with such hushed adoration, that the characters are never convincing as human beings.  This is even more the case because of the copious narration, which despite Barr’s jazzy delivery has the effect of making the people seem as though they’re being observed from some far-off place.

The performers do more posing than acting.  When, late in the game, Bosworth finally has a serious, emotional scene, it feels out of place, as though a museum guard might tell her to shush.  Barr makes for a convincing alcoholic, but the sequences of him writing are like an adolescent’s fantasy of what “real writers” do.  Lucas is too amiable a presence as Neal Cassidy to make much impression, and hardly anyone else has much of a part (Radha Mitchell is particularly wasted as the other point in the Kerouac/Cassidy/Billie quadrangle).

Big Sur never comes to life; it’s handsome and visually accomplished, but so drenched in admiration and restraint that it doesn’t dare take a spontaneous step.  It’s an immaculate movie about emotional mess, and the irony is that its careful, glossy tact couldn’t be more wrong for the story it’s telling; it’s like Norman Rockwell’s version of a Jackson Pollack.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."