Under Bixby Bridge: Kerouac’s Central Coast Reverie Crashes on the Rocks
Adapting Jack Kerouac’s late career novel “Big Sur” (1962) proves an awkward challenge for director-screenwriter Michael Polish. That isn’t to say that the film is a complete failure, but it is disappointing. Nonetheless, it will be essential viewing for fans of Jack Kerouac, however fewer in number that group may be in 2013 when the once-pervasive influence of the Beat Generation seems far, far away.
Arriving on the heels of the long-belated screen version of Kerouac’s “On the Road” (directed by Walter Salles), which was released earlier this year, “Big Sur” pales by comparison. From a visual perspective, cinematographer M. David Mullen washes out the color of Big Sur’s autumnal beauty in favor of a nostalgic look that becomes an imagistic drone.
The filmmaker most renowned for his promising debut feature “Twin Falls Idaho” (1999) takes an all-too-literal narrative approach that favors voiceover where a more imaginative use of filmic storytelling would have been better suited to submersing audiences in Kerouac’s alcohol-fuelled stream-of-consciousness search for reinventing or destroying his identity as a writer — depending on his ever-darkening mood.
Kerouac’s self-examining book is, after all, a brief memoir about a literary icon burning out at time when college students around the world still pictured his long-defunct roustabout persona hitching rides across an America that no longer existed — à la “On the Road” — which Kerouac completed in 1951 [although the book wasn’t published until 1957]. By the August of 1960, fame has taken its toll on an author who was never cut out for such hot and cold treatment from society at large.
Jean-Marc Barr (“The Big Blue”) embodies Jack Kerouac’s alter ego Jack Duloz with a graceful authority necessary to the role. The movie finds Jack living and breathing an internal monologue of anxious depression. His loyal friend and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards) offers to let Jack stay at his remote cabin tucked beneath Big Sur’s Bixby Bridge in the hopes that Jack will get sober and return to writing. However, the appeal of such scenic isolation wears thin. Jack yearns for the noisy bars and familiar camaraderie of San Francisco’s North Beach. He returns to San Francisco.
Jack’s once limitless friendship with his best friend Neal Cassidy (memorably played by Josh Lucas) takes a dark turn after Neal introduces Jack to his mistress Billie (Kate Bosworth), who responds more amorously toward Jack than the free-loving Neal can comfortably swallow — even if he enabled the easy coupling. Jealousies ignite. Jack brings a group of his friends back to Big Sur for a communal vacation that opens up divisions in friendships that the author over-simplified in his imagination. Something is bound to break.
Audiences unfamiliar with the progenitor of the Beat Generation will be left to ponder what the big deal was all about if discovering Jack Kerouac for the first time via Polish’s version of “Big Sur.” Kerouac himself realized the dated nature of his individual literary voice, which by 1960, had been co-opted by so many copycat wannabes that he struggled for the resonance of original ideas that had once flowed so easily.
Rated R. 74 min. (C) (Two Stars – out of five / no halves)