American director Michael Polish usually writes his films (“Twin Falls Idaho,” “Northfork”) with twin brother Mark. He’s paired with a more famous writer in “Big Sur”: Jack Kerouac, who wrote the 1962 novel as a barely disguised memoir about difficulties finding peace after publishing “On the Road.” The high-profile source material ensures more attention will be paid to this film, as does the fact that Polish just married one of the stars, Kate Bosworth. But its powerful literary voice also threatens to overwhelm the director, whose movie sometimes feels like a beautiful illustration, rather than an adaptation, of Kerouac’s prose.
Jean-Marc Barr plays Kerouac, who has been holed up in his mother’s Long Island home seeking refuge from unwanted media attention. (In the novel, the writer called himself Jack Duluoz; here, he and others like Neal Cassady go by their real names.) Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has invited him to California, offering a rustic cabin he owns in the coastal Big Sur region as a place to shake off career worries and his growing addiction to booze.
The setting is shockingly beautiful, from the mighty surf crashing against cliffs to the fire crackling in the tiny, woods-hidden cabin. Kerouac finds heaven here — sometimes wearing a stupid, gaping smile that reminds us that the label “Beat Generation” was intended to suggest not exhaustion but beatific bliss. But it takes all of three days for him to grow bored, and he’s practically crazy within three weeks.
The writer hitches into San Francisco and returns to a world he knows: the crush of hipsters, freewheeling road trips and drunken binges lasting for days. He reconnects with Cassady (Josh Lucas), now married and living in the suburbs with a mistress in town (Billie, played by Bosworth); in a strange, sad interaction, Jack takes the mistress as his own. He and an evolving coterie move back and forth from the city to the cabin, each transition further exposing Kerouac’s inability to find present-tense contentment.
Confronted with Kerouac’s signature, careening language, Polish chooses to use as much of it as possible in a movie-length voice-over track. Barr narrates practically every scene, monitoring the author’s deteriorating emotional state and describing the action around him. It’s an understandable impulse; with Kerouac so eloquent on the subject of Cassady’s masculine appeal or the incomparable ache of awakening after four days of drinking, why try to match him? But the choice is an uncinematic one.
While Polish uses the camera to conjure some of the movie’s effects, particularly in showing how nature can inspire awe one day and dread the next, he can’t trust himself or his fine cast to do the book justice. So, in the end, they don’t — offering a beautiful and sometimes affecting film that (appropriately, some would say) has as much difficulty connecting with the world before it as its protagonist does.
DeFore is a freelance writer.
R. At West End Cinema. Contains sexuality, nudity and language. 81 minutes.