Big Sur (2013) Film Review

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What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Michael Polish
Based on the novel Big Sur by: Jack Kerouac
Produced by: Orian Williams, Michael Polish, Adam Kassen, Ross Jacobson
Starring: Jean-Marc Barr, Josh Lucas, Kate Bosworth, Stana Katic, Patrick Fischler, Henry Thomas, Anthony Edwards
Running Time (in min.): 100 minutes
Language: English
Rating: R
Official Selection of the 2013 Austin Film Festival

How perfectly, pretentiously spot-on Michael Polish’s film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur is should be left to the purists. For anyone with even a hint of contempt for the overwrought, the picture reeks of self-awareness, understanding, and compatriotism with the original author. Marking perhaps the most accomplished rendering of the Beatnik essence in the history of film translations, Big Sur – from the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name – is for all intents and purposes a perfect movie. Too bad, then, that it’s also intolerable.

Following on the heels of Fernando Mereilles’s waste-of-the-hype version of On the Road last year, indie darling Polish and his team premiered their film at Sundance, where it was matched by a thematically similar, more Earth-bound partner: Jon Krokidas’s Kill Your Darlings. What Krokidas’s film lacked in authenticity, it made up for in gumption, casting Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg and spinning the origin stories of the Beats into a period murder-mystery. A first viewing of Darlings seemed aggravating, too, because it didn’t try hard enough to show what Kerouac himself was thought to embody: ramblings, lostness, and the value of gold liquor. The precise, opposite effect is at the heart of Big Sur, and Polish knows it.

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The confirmation in the physical accomplishment of this film, which he produced and adapted, even going so far as to denote at the end that this particular photoplay is based on a “flow-of-conscious as Kerouac perceived it.” Specifically, in the summer of 1959, we spend time with the sickly surrogate-Jack Duluoz (an exceptionally convincing Jean-Marc Barr) as he begins a tenure at writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (Anthony Edwards) cabin. The King of the Beats is not in a good state, despite the remarkable beauty surrounding him – drinking heavily and seeing mules in the hills of San Francisco County, he types only in anguish, if ever. Making matters worse is his massive success in the three years since writing On the Road. So taken with the tramping young protagonist of that book, American youth have taken to beating on Kerouac’s windows and cornering him for conversation on city streets.

Three trips to Ferlinghetti’s place, each with a different context, structure Polish’s picture, but their incohesiveness – and yes, I do recognize that’s not priority here – breaks any sense of empathy down quickly. Duluoz is a febrile whiner in Barr’s depiction, a wide-eyed, handsome man whose alcoholism and sense of entitlement have landed him with a sense of powerless. His companions make matters worse: the poet Michael McClure (Balthazar Getty) won’t stop needling him for a foreword on his upcoming book; Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler, long overdue for the screen time afforded him here) and his lusty girlfriend Lenora (Stana Katic of Castle) can’t stop touching one another long enough to eat full meals; and Philip Walen (Henry Thomas) just sits with his corncob pipe staring off into the distance. No solace is to be found in their company nor in the forest, as Duluouz must have expected; and Big Sur looks, to surrogate-Jack, like a sometimes-heaven as often as a sometimes-hell.

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In creating Ye Old Bay Area, Polish’s team does manage to impress with stellar tech credits across the board. M. David Mullen’s cinematography does as much to capture consciousness-flows as any poet ever could, and he’s helped by brisk (and, as I mentioned, incohesive) editing by Geraud Brisson and Robert Frazen. Rhythm and pacing come as much from their work as from the lovely score by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National (with Kubilay Uner), whose talents are basically wasted here.

While Polish’s script does justice to the tripartite framework of the novel, it sacrifices any sense of value to anyone without a connection to Kerouac. As seems to be the most common problem with Beat adaptations, the filmmakers prize style over substance in basic ways; and though Polish finds mood and tone with ease, he abandons character, strong dialogue, and most egregiously, depth. Barr makes for an incomparable Kerouac-a-like – in fact, the movie’s strongest value is in its casting by Kelly Wagner – but his inability to change, to register, or to communicate in anything but cliché film images stands. In this, Big Sur suffers its most unforgivable flaw: it alienates us from the one man we, as a national culture, want desperately to bring back from the dead.

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