There’s such a wonderful look and feel to Stephen Kay’s “The Last Time I Committed Suicide” that it’s a shame it doesn’t truly come alive until its climactic sequence. In a singularly audacious and encouraging feature debut, Kay has written his script from the so-called “Great Sex Letter” that Beat icon Neal Cassady wrote to Jack Kerouac, who would immortalize him as Dean Moriarty in “On the Road.”
Kay goes for the intense quality of Cassady and Kerouac’s writing that is echoed in the film’s great bebopping jazz score. The trouble is that Kay doesn’t define Cassady sufficiently to allow us to see him as the stuff of legend. Thomas Jane plays him as a likable guy with a reckless streak, but someone who is not all that distinctive. (In short, we wouldn’t have much reason to be watching this young man if his name weren’t Neal Cassady.) Kay also has a tendency to have Cassady and his poolroom pal Harry (Keanu Reeves) sound a little too literary early in the film.
Still, Kay captures some quicksilver quality of authenticity of place and time, and just when you’re about to give up on the picture ever coming to life fully, Reeves kicks “Last Time” into a raw, passionate existence. He sets up Jane for Cassady’s stunning moment of self-knowledge that will determine the restless, craving-experience course for the rest of his short life. Cassady died in Mexico in 1968 after being found in a coma, having fallen asleep--after some partying--by a railroad track during a cold, rainy night. He had just turned 42.
The film is set in his native Denver the late fall and Christmas season of 1945, when Cassady was 19 and working the graveyard shift at Goodyear Tire. Kay tells us nothing about his background, presenting him as a handsome, sexy and increasingly free spirit involved in a romance with an emotionally unstable young woman (Clare Forlani, who played Jean-Michel Basquiat’s girlfriend in “Basquiat”). Boy, is Cassady the wrong guy for her!
A flashback shows Neal having a fling with an eager 16-year-old (Alexandra Holden), which will have profoundly crucial consequences. Cassady, already experimenting with expressing himself through writing, is seriously intending to settle down with Forlani’s seemingly recovered Joan and trying to land a day job as a taxi driver.
All of Cassady’s plans unravel during a prolonged encounter with Harry, an alcoholic who, in a long sequence brilliantly sustained by Reeves, forces Cassady to recognize the “wild demon” within himself, one who at heart doesn’t want to be confined by life behind any proverbial “white picket fence.” Jane has presence but is not able to break through as Cassady until those climactic moments, and even then he is overshadowed by Reeves’ powerful, driving star performance.
“The Last Time I Committed Suicide,” already shown on cable a few months ago, is unlikely to have much of a theatrical run. But it is more persuasive than the 1980 “Heart Beat” portrait of Cassady and his relationships, and it does leave you wanting to see what Kay--and Jane, too--will do next. It also leaves you with a feeling of real respect for Reeves for showing up in this modestly budgeted film instead of “Speed 2.”
* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality. Times guidelines: There is also some nudity and strong language.
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‘The Last Time I Committed Suicide’
Thomas Jane: Neal Cassady
Keanu Reeves: Harry
Claire Forlani: Joan
Alexandra Holden: Vicky
A Kushner-Locke Co. and Tapestry Films presentation of a Bates Entertainment production. Writer-director Stephen Kay. Based on a letter by Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac. Producers Edward Bates, Louise Rosner. Executive producers Peter Abrams, Robert L. Levy, J.P. Guerin, Peter Locke, Donald Kushner, Lawrence Mortoff. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowksi. Editor Dorian Harris. Music Tyler Bates. Production designer Amy B. Ancona. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
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