Movie Review: “Big Sur” Is One Long, Drawn-Out Melodrama


Review by James McDonald

A recounting of Jack Kerouac’s (here known by the name of his fictional alter-ego Jack Duluoz) three sojourns to the cabin in Big Sur, owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Jack Kerouac was an American novelist and poet. He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Kerouac is recognized for his spontaneous method of writing, covering topics such as Catholic spirituality, jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel. He became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward some of its politically radical elements.

As “Big Sur” begins, it is after the success of his book, ‘On the Road’ and Jack feels burdened by fame and success and becomes an alcoholic. In a personal bid to regain his aesthetic flare, he retreats to a cabin in the woods, owned by his friend and poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Once there, he hopes the wilderness and solitude will help him shake off the booze and give him the creative spark he needs in order to continue writing. Instead, he ponders the meaning of life, and death, and water, and trees, and mice, and otters, and everything he sees and feels around him.

What Jack does in abundance in “Big Sur”, is talk, and talk, and talk. Then he talks some more. When he occasionally breaks away from the cabin, he meets up with his friends, including longtime buddy Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) and his beautiful wife Carolyn (Radha Mitchell). In the quiet moments that Jack shares with Carolyn, we see that they were meant to be together, from the loneliness in their eyes and the way they talk to each other but Jack is totally incapable of committing to her, or any woman for that matter, so it seems.

Neal takes Jack to the city where he introduces him to his mistress and confidante, Billie (Kate Bosworth) and as soon as Jack sees her, and her him, they fall for each other and begin a steamy affair, right in front of Neal, something Jack thinks he wants to see. As soon as the relationship becomes serious though, Jack pulls away from her and try as she might, even opening up and telling him that she truly loves him, she cannot get him to commit to her. Jack would rather be alone, drinking himself into a stupor and finding companionship in the animals that surround him.


The film has very little dialogue throughout, instead, we have to endure Mr. Kerouac’s thoughts on almost every aspect of the film in voiceover which, by the end of the movie, becomes an annoyance more than anything else. At times, he tells us what he’s feeling, even as we’re watching him go through the motions. The performances were top notch. Jean-Marc Barr as Jack Kerouac was engrossing and when we find him trying to decide between the bottle or Billie and the life they could share together, we want to grab him and tell him to wake up before it’s too late.

Josh Lucas, Radha Mitchell and Anthony Edwards are all excellent actors but here, unfortunately, they don’t get a chance to do much of anything although they are solid in their respective roles. Initially I didn’t recognize Henry Thomas (E.T.) as Philip Whalen but the similarities and nuances to the real Philip Whalen were uncanny, a testament to Mr. Thomas’ understated performance. For me though, Kate Bosworth was the standout here. Her performance as a woman who falls head over heels in love with a man she eventually finds out she can never have, was beautiful and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

Even with Mr. Kerouac’s newfound fame, all she wants is to be with him because he makes her happy and she will do anything to make him happy. Cinematographer M. David Mullen shoots the film majestically with the important aspects of the movie made with a simple glance, a close-up, a detail shot. The movie looks absolutely stunning, unfortunately, it’s the only facet of the movie that is. Rather than let the story unfold naturally, director Michael Polish instead uses voiceover narration throughout most of the film and that takes away from the audience being able to connect to the characters onscreen. Mr. Kerouac may have indeed been a literary darling and seditious personality but after watching this film and having spent 80 minutes with him, he made me want to take him out to his cabin in the woods and leave him there, permanently.

In stores January 14th


James McDonald
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