Writer-director Michael Polish’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel “Big Sur” — chronicling the “On the Road” author’s addiction-fueled post-fame crack-up — is a somber peculiarity among the recent glut of Beat-centric movies.
Although no less fawning and indulgent about its self-centered subject, played by Jean-Marc Barr (who also narrates, run-on style), the muted emptiness of the ill-fated sojourn wills its way toward something like existential meaningfulness. It’s all spiky ambition early on as a burned-out Kerouac hits California’s woodsy boho hot spot to reignite the muse, until boredom quickly makes him call in enabling reinforcements, most notably drinking buddy Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), whose mistress (Kate Bosworth) becomes a further distraction.
It’s been a rough road for filmmakers trying to capture the moment-to-moment jazziness of the Beats without trafficking in visual clichés of hedonism, which is why Polish’s catatonic moodiness quickly feels like a somnolescent contradiction. The actors — including Radha Mitchell as Cassady’s wife and Anthony Edwards as Lawrence Ferlinghetti — barely even have to perform. They all ultimately fade, ghost-like, into the tastefully photographed landscape Polish provides us of Kerouac’s ultimate nowheresville, the writer’s successive cabin trips becoming a kind of willful personality disintegration. That may not make “Big Sur” a trip you want to take, but there’s a strange heft to its hollowness.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality, nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinemas