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Overall Rating

Awesome: 12.5%
Worth A Look: 12.5%
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Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 2 user ratings

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Big Sur
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by Jay Seaver

"No Sur thing, though nicely Polished."
3 stars

Mock me for my lack of appreciation for great literature, but my interest in "Big Sur" didn't come from it being an adaptation of a Jack Kerouac work. Instead, it was Michael Polish's presence as screenwriter and director that piqued my interest, and I suspect that the aspects I found most interesting come from Polish rather than Kerouac. Polish makes a striking film out of Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness ramble, if not always a penetrating one.

It opens with a quote from Kerouac, about how he is eternally 26 and hitch-hiking across the country in his readers' minds, when the reality is that of a worn-down forty-year-old. His friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards) invites Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) out to his isolated cabin in Big Sur, California to unwind, and that may prove to be just what he needs. On the other hand, it also has him spending a fair amount of time in San Francisco with old friends, which involves a lot of drinking. In particular, he's reunited with Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) and his wife Carolyn (Radha Mitchell). Neal introduces him to his mistress Billie (Kate Bosworth), who is immediately drawn to Kerouac, and there's basically zero chance that the bonds of affection between every pairing from that quartet aside from Carolyn & Billie will just result in the group being pulled closer together.

That description somewhat soft-peddles the alcoholism, but that's somewhat inevitable for the same reason that alcohol abuse is problematic as the subject of a story: For all that it's a very real, destructive thing, it's a mundane enough sort of affliction as to be boring. There's nothing shocking about watching someone drink, and Kerouac doesn't prove to be violent when drunk, just selfish when not turned introverted and weepy. Being Kerouac, he's able to churn out more noteworthy self-pitying prose than the typical drunk, but there inevitably comes a point when watching somebody else drink seems like it may not be a productive use of the viewer's time.

This, of course, is part of the point, and it's to Polish's credit that he's able to get the audience to the point of feeling that frustration without quite wallowing in it (though it's a fuzzy border that everyone will place differently) - the idea's to get them to feel this for the character, not the movie. To get there, he does lean on Kerouac's words perhaps a bit more than a motion picture should; large chunks of narration presumably transplanted straight from the source abound, and while it's hard to argue their quality, there are times when they seem a bit redundant or just plain long-winded, given how they tend to pause what's on screen.

And what's on-screen is right in Polish's wheelhouse. Fans of his movies such as Twin Falls Idaho, Northfork, and The Astronaut Farmer won't be surprised; Polish and his usual crew - including and especially cinematographer M. David Mullen - once again capture a sense of the beauty and isolation of the American West; the scenery in Big Sur is unspoiled but a little threatening for it. Even when the setting is not the middle of nowhere, there's still a strong sense of time and place, whether it's the Cassadys' home in the suburbs or how the aging beatniks at least momentarily claim corners of San Francisco as their own.

The supporting cast of those now middle-aged beats (here mostly using their real-life names rather than the aliases of Kerouac's books) is the movie's secret weapon; the group includes Anthony Edwards, Balthazar Getty, Henry Thomas, and Patrick Fischler, all demonstrating wit and life that one may not often find elsewhere in the movie. Josh Lucas is easily upstaged by Radha Mitchell whenever the focus is on Neal & Carolyn Cassady, with Mitchell effortlessly selling the history that these characters have together. Kate Bosworth is surprisingly strong as Billie; as much as she starts off being mostly young, pretty, and willing to be star-struck by the famous writer, Bosworth does fairly well in keeping the character herself ever as, from Kerouac's point of view, she goes from a bit of fun to Wanting More.

They're all dancing around Jean-Marc Barr's Kerouac, though, and that's where the issues with doing a story that revolves around a slow-spiraling alcoholic rear their ugly heads again. Barr is fine enough and certainly believable in the part, but he's removed enough that it's just as hard for the audience to grab hold as it is the other characters. He reads Kerouac's prose well enough in voice-over, but that demonstration of the man's talent is all that really makes him interesting, and it leads to the questions that all-too-many movies of this type, factual or fictional, documentary or dramatic, have trouble answering: Is the fact that he can write (or play guitar or what have you) enough to make his substance abuse interesting, or is there something else compelling going on?

I'm not sure that's the case in "Big Sur". Michael Polish and company do a fine job building the world the Jack Kerouac lived in, but that's not quite enough to make an hour and a half of someone drinking himself into a hole more interesting than it sounds.

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originally posted: 10/22/13 13:51:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2013 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/24/14 Charles Tatum Strong acting and directing, perfectly played 5 stars
4/15/14 Jim Brown The cinematography is beautiful, the settings evocative. K & C casting was disappointing. 4 stars
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  01-Nov-2013 (R)
  DVD: 14-Jan-2014



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