After decades of being considered unfilmable, Jack Kerouac’s On The Roadfinally made it to the silver screen last year, and turned out to be precisely the bland travelogue everyone had feared. Undaunted, Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho, Northfork), working for the first time without his brother Mark, has now adapted Kerouac’s equally language-driven novel Big Sur, which recounts a series of trips Kerouac made to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin following On The Road’s publication and unexpected success. Two stillborn attempts should be sufficient, right? Can everyone now agree that Kerouac, like most notable writers, has a prose style that doesn’t translate especially well into images? The best that can be hoped for is that his plotless works might provide a good showcase for actors, but here, again, nobody’s given the opportunity to do much more than brood prettily and occasionally shout carpe diembromides into the pounding surf.
Unlike the novel, in which Kerouac employed aliases for himself and all of his friends (it’s otherwise arguably more memoir than fiction), Polish’s movie uses everybody’s real names. Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr), feeling disoriented and weirdly disillusioned by the adulation he’s receiving—from readers who imagine he’s still the 26-year-old renegade of On The Road, not an exhausted guy pushing 40—decides he needs a break from society, and accepts an invitation from Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards) to stay at his isolated cabin in Big Sur. Almost immediately, however, Kerouac gets restless, and he proceeds to shuttle back and forth several times between Big Sur and San Francisco, dragging friends like Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) to the cabin and engaging in a desultory affair with Cassady’s mistress, Billie (Kate Bosworth). And that’s about it, really, since Big Sur isn’t a story so much as a portrait of a slow nervous breakdown.
Clearly aware that he’s fighting an uphill battle, Polish smothers the movie in voiceover narration taken directly from the book, which only raises the question of why he made the film in the first place. Majestic California scenery does make Big Sur a more visually compelling experience than Walter Salles’ Road adaptation, but it otherwise suffers from the same overwhelming sense of paltriness; characters and events that compel as filtered through Kerouac’s stream of consciousness seem drab and ordinary when conventionally dramatized. Barr, who’s primarily known for his long association with Lars Von Trier, mightily furrows his brow in an effort to appear haunted, while Lucas gives Cassady none of the charismatic intensity that Garrett Hedlund brought to his (admittedly much younger) portrayal in Road. Ultimately, the film’s relation to its source is like that of a picture of the California coast to the coast itself: a small, limited representation of something that’s far more powerful when experienced firsthand.