“Big Sur” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:21, three stars out of four.
Think of “Big Sur” as the counterpoint to Walter Salles’ fevered, rapturous adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” that came earlier this year. Salles’ movie mythologizes Kerouac’s book (and the real-life characters and events that inspired it), as much about the book’s impact on the world as the book itself.
In Michael Polish’s “Big Sur,” also based on an autobiographical novel of Kerouac’s, we get a lot closer to the man himself. The events of “Big Sur” take place three years after “Road” was published and Kerouac found himself a literary sensation. But, as the saying goes, fame doesn’t change you. It changes everyone around you. Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) finds himself as plagued with inner demons as ever before, driven to drink and to despair. It’s just that now, more people are watching him do it. He writes how American youth see him as perpetually 26, on the road hitchhiking, when in fact he’s “nearly 40, bored and jaded.”
“Big Sur” is structured around three visits that Kerouac made to a cabin owned by poet and City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards). In the first, Kerouac is in full retreat from his notoriety, and goes alone searching for a kind of Walden-like reverie. At first he finds peace, and Polish lovingly wends passages from the book around gorgeous, at times almost surreal natural footage of forests, cliffs, and waves roiling and breaking against the shore.
But the peace doesn’t last; bored and eager to get out of his own head, Kerouac heads back to San Francisco to meet his old Beat friends, including Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler) and Phil Whalen (Henry Thomas). And there’s also Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), the golden-boy subject of “Road,” who has now mellowed into a respectable life with a wife (Radha Mitchell) and kids. The friends all head back up to Big Sur for Kerouac’s second visit, and as they sit around drinking, philosophizing and comparing wood-chopping techniques, Kerouac muses that he’s “the happiest he’s been in three years.”
But it doesn’t last. Kerouac is a man who seeks unhappiness, and finds it. Something as simple as a dead animal floating in the water can send him inward into a dark place. He throws his life into disarray even more by taking up with Neal’s mistress, Billie (Kate Bosworth). The final trip to Big Sur includes Kerouac and Billie (and her young son) along with the chatterbox Lew and his wife, and Kerouac sinks further and further into depression.
“Big Sur” is like a tone poem on depression, meditative and elliptical, trapping us inside Kerouac’s fevered mind, the words in his internal monologues coming out in a rush, as if he’s can’t stop them from coming. Barr seems to capture something essential in the conflict of bravado and fear in Kerouac’s writing, the careless way he carries himself revealing both the cocky young man he once was and the bitter old man he’s becoming.
“Big Sur” is a beautiful, internal film, with little of the sense of wild celebration of Salles’ “Road.” Even the scenes of debauchery and drinking have an air of desperation to them, and we wonder how many more years the Beats have left in them. But it feels like we get closer to the real Kerouac here, the man behind the book, unable to escape its shadow.