[RH Review] Big Sur

When Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, he was in his mid-to-late 20s, earnest and optimistic about what America could offer him. However, by the time On the Road was published, Kerouac was in his mid-30s, already a witness to the country’s rapidly evolving landscape. Feeling jaded and unnerved by the sudden success of On the Road and readers’ misunderstanding of who Kerouac actually was (the near middle-aged disillusioned Kerouac and not the desperately optimistic mid-20s Sal Paradise), he visited fellow Beat writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur, California to unwind, serving as the basis of 1962’s Big Sur.

Does the Big Sur adaptation capture Kerouac’s language-heavy prose, or is it encumbered by Kerouac’s writing style?

Big Sur
Director: Michael Polish
Rating: R

Release Date: November 1, 2013

Jack Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr), jaded with the success with On the Road, travels to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur to escape from city life. However, after three weeks, he becomes restless and yearns to return. Over the course of three visits between San Francisco and Big Sur, he reconnects with Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), the proclaimed hero of On the Road, Carolyn Cassady (Radha Mitchell), Michael McClure (Balthazar Getty), Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler), and others.

In an attempt to help Kerouac break out of his slump, Cassady introduces him to his mistress, Billie Dabney (Kate Bosworth). However, Cassady finds himself jealous of the budding relationship. Throughout the affair and the drinking binges, Kerouac begins to slowly descend into alcohol abuse. With his dependence on drinking and the pre-existing despondence he already faced, he falls into a downward spiral plaguing both his physical and emotional well-being.

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Kerouac wrote in On the Road, “…nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…” Big Sur is the romantic follow-up to those exact words. It’s a sad look at what the author faced, especially with knowledge that he died a short seven years after Big Sur‘s publication. Of course, this is a review of the film adaptation and not the novel itself, and many things were lost in translation from the pages to the screen.

Obviously, the biggest disparity between the two is the inability to translate Kerouac’s prose into a film. As seen in Walter Salles’ On the Road, it’s tough to adapt a Kerouac novel. His writing style is very language-heavy prose with some plot present, but the true heart/art of Kerouac’s writing is found in his ambient word association and the beat and rhythm of it all. Director Michael Polish attempts to emulate this with voiceovers taken directly from the novel. The opening scenes of Bixby Beach supplement the voiceovers, but it’s not enough.

That’s not to say that Barr and the rest of the cast didn’t deliver great performances. Compared to Kill Your Darlings‘ Jack Huston and On the Road‘s Sam Riley, Big Sur‘s Jean-Marc Barr has been the best big screen Kerouac I’ve seen. He’s inquisitive, wise, and self-destructive in the way Huston and Riley weren’t. Granted, the comparison comes with an asterisk, as these are three different films, actors, directors, novels, and phases in Kerouac’s life. However, Huston and Riley didn’t capture Kerouac’s essence.

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Adapting Jack Kerouac is hard, yet Polish did what he could to do both Big Sur and Kerouac justice. Unfortunately, the mystery of adapting Kerouac novels to the big screen continues unsolved. Beat Generation fans will enjoy seeing some of their favorite writers portrayed on the big screen, but there’s little appeal to general audiences. 

Score: RH scoreRH scoreRH scoreRH scoreRH scoreRHScoreHalf 5.5 out of 10

Geoff Henao

Geoff Henao is a writer/kinda photographer affiliated with the Chicago collective LOD. His interests include film, punk rock, cute girls, graphic novels, video games, and the Chicago Bulls. He's funny sometimes.

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