The literature of the Beat Geneation never really appealed to me, but it doesn't require any loyalty to the collected works and myths of literary bohemians and/or primitives like Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy and Allen Ginsberg to perceive that "Heart Beat," opening today at area theaters, is Hollywood biographical homage at its most patronizing, superficial and absurdly self-defeating.
Placed in the standard celebrity-bio compactor, all writers -- major or minor, respected or notorious -- tend to emerge looking uniformly blockheaded and insignificant. Kerouac & Friends now share in an embarrassing tradition inflicted on far more glamorous subjects, from Lord Byron to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Surely it's a movie version of Kerouac's most celebrated novel, "On the Road," that moviegoers interested in the beats would find interesting, even a generation late. In a way, the medium owes Kerouac one. A later, weaker novel, "Subterraneans," was transformed into a bowdlerized joke by MGM at the end of the '50s.
"On the Road," a fictionalized chronicle of Kerouac's youthful wandering and carousing across the American landscape, circa late '40s, in the charismatic company of Cassady, a diamond-in-the-rough dead-end kid from Denver who enthralled and inspired several writers, remains a readable, colorful and apparently filmable book. It certainly influenced plenty of film-makers, from the producers of the TV series "Route 66" to Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern on "Easy Rider."
"Heart Beat" derives from a slim, banal memoir written by Cassady's widow, Carolyn, who cared for their three children and kept the home fires smoldering for the restless men-folk during the '50s, when "On the Road" was a work-in-progress. Kerouac lived with the Cassadys during part of 1952 and '53, and "Heart Beat" recalls some of the tensions that grew out of this ill-advised proximity.
One gathers from stories written during the shooting that "Heart Beat" was envisioned as a kind of updated, American "Jules and Jim" by the participants, especially the well-chosen but sadly deceived costars: John Heard as Kerouac, Nick Nolte as Cassady and Sissy Spacek as Carolyn. Screenwriter-director John Byrum, who already had "Inserts" to live down, will not have to hold his breath waiting to be praised as an American Truffaut.
The Cassady-Kerouac menage might have been evoked in an affectionate, romantic, yet also humorous style. Byrum must have had something ingratiating in mind when he pitched the project. If so, one is forced to conclude that he's not only a threat to literary personalities living and dead but also his own worst enemy.
A blithely trivial-minded, grotesquely miscalculated movie, "Heart Beat" recalls outmoded, hypocritical bedroom comedies like "The Moon Is Blue" and "That Touch of Mink." Far from addressing itself to a more or less knowledgeable public, "Heart Beat" appears to be aimed at some oblivious sliver of the audience -- maybe suburban swingers in need of a softcore make-out movie.
Byrum's shallowness imposes itself immediately in voice-over narration entrusted to Spacek, echoing the mock-naive gloss she supplied as the amoral girlfriend of killer Martin Sheen in "Badlands." as Carolyn Cassady, she introduces the flashbacks supposedly documenting Life With Literary Legends by generalizing in the following excruciating terms: "After World War II, we all thought we knew who we were and where we were going. What each of us wanted most in the world was a house in the suburbs, two cars and exactly 3.2 children."
This patter could set the scene only for people disposed to remain abysmally misinformed about the characters and period supposedly being recalled. Although it identifies the heroine as a hopeless, dunce, Byrum presumably hoped to make the square old '50s rather than Carolyn seem ridiculous.
The romantic triangle he depicts is never a source of vivid satisfication or unhappiness to the people intimately involved. It's a put-on, facetiously celebrated as a kind of pioneer open marriage, whose significance is measured externally by the shocks and dirty ideas it gives to the neighbors, specifically a laughingstock suburban couple called Bob and Betty Bendix.
If it's calculated at all, "Heart Beat" is calculated to flatter the pretensions of "liberated" equivalents of the Bendixes. Although both the young hedonists loved and lost by Carolyn ended up burning themselves out and dying in early middle age, she sounds more complacent at the end of the movie than at the beginning; "What the hell did we do wrong? I don't think we did anything wrong; I just think we did it first . . . Neal thought life was destroyed by compromises. Jack thought life was made by them. I thought they were like dental appointments: damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Damned if I know whose idea of witty reflection this is supposed to be, but it won't do. The book suggests that Carolyn was attracted to Jack in reaction to Neal's neglect and abscences, but one never feels as if Kerouac meant more to her. It was her tragicomic destiny to serve as the stable, consoling love object for a pair of compulsively undomesticated males. That perspective might have become the source of a uniquely funny and touching portrait of literary -- or merely restless -- men, driven to baffle and betray a woman they also need, but "Heart Beat" treats everyone condescendingly.
It might have helped immensely if Byrum had tried to document the courtship and marriage of the Cassadys, then shown us how Kerouac's presence in the household affected an already troubled domesticity. Unfortunately, he seems incapable of illuminating this triangle from the point of view of any character. Physically and temperamentally, the actors seem ideal for their roles (Nolte was, of course, fresh from another embodiment of Neal Cassady in "Who'll Stop the Rain"), but they have no authentic or sustained feelings to play.
One is left contemplating an elaborately empty movie. Jack Fisk's sets and Lazslo Kovacs' cinematography are lushly superfluous adornments to a nonexistent love story. The only elements worth remembering are the howlers inserted to illustrate the Agony of Writing: Heard types his manuscripts on reams of toilet paper, and in one mind-boggling interlude he's shown Trying to Concentrate in a tenement bathroom also shared by a derelict retching into the commode. Where was Byrum when such brainstorms occurred to him?