“And I realize the unbearable anguish of insanity: how uninformed people can be thinking insane people are ‘happy’, O God, in fact it was Irwin Garden once warned me not to think the madhouses are full of ‘happy nuts’.”
—Jack Kerouac, Big Sur
If Jack Kerouac‘s 1957 masterpiece On the Road defined and exalted the Beat Generation, his 1962 novel Big Sur held this generation up for a not-always-gentle appraisal of its complicated desires and shortcomings. It’s a quiet, difficult novel that had never been adapted for film prior to Michael Polish’s 2013 effort. Though it has largely underwhelmed audiences, Polish’s take on Kerouac features the kind of ephemeral, inexplicable tone that distinguished the writer as a true innovator. Big Sur is a perfect example of how a flowing, Beat classic can be transcribed to the screen with its spirit intact.
Like his novels, Big Sur is a movie that is both about Jack Kerouac and not. In the film, Polish has done away with Kerouac’s pretense to call his lead character Jack Duluoz. Instead, we meet a middle-aged Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) who escapes to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (Anthony Edwards) cabin in Big Sur to try and ground himself. Cinematographer M. David Mullen helps us get lost in Kerouac’s Big Sur via static, wide shots of the forests and shoreline near the cabin. It’s an idyllic world that is at once wonderfully beautiful and just a little boring.
The viewer needn’t despair, though, because we can tell from Kerouac’s voiceover during our introduction to the cabin in Big Sur that it’s unlikely he’ll be able to resist the pull of the city for long. Sure enough, he spends only a few weeks alone in Big Sur before he returns to San Francisco to party with his old Beat friends. When he journeys outside of the city with a group of friends, we meet Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), one of Kerouac’s oldest friends and his hitchhiking buddy from his On the Road days. We also meet the beautiful Carolyn (Radha Mitchell), Cassady’s wife, and Billie (Kate Bosworth), his mistress.
Relationships are central to Big Sur, and Polish has done a stellar job of playing his cast together to create dynamic, rich pairings. Kerouac and Carolyn share a tender moment in the Cassady’s kitchen that seems unmatchable until Cassady introduces his old friend and his mistress. Billie and Kerouac become fast lovers, and the on-screen chemistry between Barr and Bosworth is perhaps the very best thing about the film. Each tender, angry, nuanced moment is narrated by Kerouac so that we hear it from his angle. But these scenes tend to be shot from the perspective of Billie, reasserting the importance of this relationship to the arc of the film.
Quickly worn down by the city, Kerouac, Cassady, Carolyn and Billie head back to the cabin at Big Sur with Ferlinghetti and a few of his friends. In one scene from the trip, where Neal Cassady takes an ax to a log and Kerouac narrates, we’re treated to the raw, emotional power of the Beat hero’s writing. Here Polish has done an exceptional job of translating a lyrical text to the screen. Of course, not everything can be so beautiful as Kerouac’s words. Debating the direction of life and poetry together every evening might have seemed like the perfect escape, but we begin to see the strain appear in the terse way Bosworth’s Billie turns away from Kerouac in bed and in the increasingly detached manner with which he treats her (and everyone else).
As the sojourn at the cabin winds down, we watch Kerouac and his friends prepare to leave. They debate what they’ll do with their lives, what poems must be written, who is going with whom. The Beat poet, though, sits in a chair outside the cabin and muses to himself, just as he does in the novel, “on soft Spring nights I’ll stand in the yard under the stars—Something good will come out of all things yet—And it will be golden and eternal just like that—There’s no need to say another word.” It’s the best possible conclusion for Michael’s Polish’s rich, slow-burning portrait of the enigmatic Kerouac. Big Sur might not find converts among a wide audience, but it’s a perfect treat for fans of American literature and the raw Beat spirit.
The DVD release of Big Sur includes no special features, which is a shame. For example, it would be enlightening for viewers to hear Polish talk more about the process of adapting Kerouac’s work for the screen.