Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel, Big Sur, was an autobiographical account of the author’s retreats to the Californian coastline region. It’s where he sought sobriety and inner peace after the commercial and critical success of On the Road.
In this adaptation, Jean-Marc Barr is the very bleak-looking Kerouac – a brooding, middle-aged alcoholic. The embodiment of the Beat generation, readers still visualize him as a young renegade.
He drifts between a cabin hideaway and San Francisco with a troupe of acquaintances in tow.
Director Michael Polish has dispensed with the alter-egos of Kerouac’s novel, and we have Philip Whalen (Henry Thomas), Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler) and others as strangely bodiless figures, mere tide wrack bobbing around the edges of Kerouac’s drowning destruction.
Long, slow montages of the coast and the heavy stream-of-consciousness voiceover dominate. Although beautiful, Big Sur just doesn’t translate to screen.
Only the performances of Josh Lucas as Neal Cassady and Radha Mitchell as Carolyn Cassady threaten to breathe some energy into the picture. (Carolyn, a complex and fascinating individual, was also Kerouac’s lover. She charted her life in her book Off the Road.)
Kate Bosworth plays a mistress of Neal’s (he had many), called Billie. She is wispy, needy and belongs in a different movie. Her young son stares at Kerouac with contempt, as well he might.
Kerouac suffers mental deterioration. Delirium creeps in. Words tumble out. He says he is a language spinner. Some poor young hanger-on thinks there is something noble and idealistic about the beat generation. The film depicts the gap between myth and reality at least.