Jack Kerouac is best known for his novel “On The Road,” which helped inspire the Beat generation and brought the author fast fame, but his next novel, “Big Sur,” told the story of how success only made Kerouac feel more lost and trapped. Director Michael Polish attempts to bring the novel to life with Big Sur as we watch Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) travel to the beautiful area to secretly stay in his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (Anthony Edwards) cabin and try and find some peace.
Things start off on the wrong foot when Kerouac arrives in San Francisco and immediately goes out and gets drunk, altering the world to his presence in the city. Frustrated that people assumed his own life was emulated in his work (noting that he is forty and jaded, not twenty-six and constantly hitchhiking), Ferlinghetti is disappointed Kerouac could not seem to keep himself out of the bar, and out of the public eye. But Kerouac’s inability to stay away from the bottle is only the first of many incidents which hint at what is clearly a debilitating drinking problem, one Kerouac describes in full detail, proving he is aware of his condition, but unable to stop himself from indulging in it.
After spending a few days of solitude in the gorgeous landscape that surrounds Ferlinghetti’s cabin, Kerouac finds himself restless and desperate for human interaction. He decides to simply hitchhike back into San Francisco, but realizes that after three years away from the road things have changed and hoping someone will pick up a stranger is no longer a guaranteed ride. Kerouac rounds up his friends including Philip Whalen (Henry Thomas), Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), and Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler) along with their various significant others to head back up to the cabin as a group. While it is clear this group would do anything for Kerouac, you start to wonder why when he barely speaks, constantly drinks, wanders off, and changes his mind about what he wants to do from moment to moment.
Once back in the city, Cassady decides to take Kerouac to meet his mistress, Billie (Kate Bosworth), and she and Kerouac hit it off immediately, falling into bed (and a relationship) almost before Cassady is out the door. But it is not long before Kerouac finds himself confined to a chair in Billie’s living room, clutching a bottle and refusing to leave, despite the bottom of the chair starting to fall out due to its over-use. Even with friends who seem to love him unconditionally, Kerouac’s demons seem to be the only things he can truly count on when he is constantly driving everyone else away.
Barr rarely speaks in any of his scenes, instead filling the audience in on his thoughts through rapid fire voice overs, and his one explosive scene with Bosworth comes across as more forced than climactic. The main interactions Barr has with his fellow actors are warm embraces, asking for rides (which they all too happily oblige), and sharing a bottle of whatever liquor is at his disposal, but it is not enough to flesh out his character and make him compelling enough to keep the focus on. Polish does succeed in depicting the beauty of Big Sur, but when it is Kerouac’s personal journey that is supposed to be the film’s focal point, it is hard to appreciate Big Sur as more than a moving post card.
The Upside: Breathtaking visuals of Big Sur and the California coast make you feel like you are there which, when paired with a beautiful score from The National, feel like true escapism and make the juxtaposition against Kerouac’s breakdown all the more tragic.
The Downside: While all the actors are clearly committed to their performances, Barr’s lack of interaction with them, particularly when the story revolves around him, caused the ensemble to feel like that of an under rehearsed stage play rather than a tight knit group of friends.
On the Side: The National also composed an original song after seeing the indie film Win Win titled “Think You Can Wait,” which played over the film’s credits.