Sundance Review: Big Sur


It was the public’s idolization of Jack Kerouac that spurred him to move to a remote cabin and write Big Sur. It’s funny then that this biopic of the same name subjects Kerouac to a similar treatment of worship and tribute that gets away from his true character.

Big Sur creates a world where Kerouac’s friends drift in and out, as if they are figments of his imagination that stop existing when outside of his vision. That may be fine for an autobiographical novel, but it makes for a film that is shallow and sentimental as a Levi’s ad.

Big Sur
Director: Michael Polish
Rating: NR
Country: USA
Release Date: January 23, 2013 (Sundance Film Festival)

In his own words, Kerouac considered himself “bored and jaded” upon entering his forties. The wild life that once drove him across the country is now the one that leaves him bedridden, overtaken to severe alcoholism that his friends judge him for yet continue to support. Insight into Kerouac’s personal life end there, with the majority of the film giving way to glamorization of his alcoholism, scenic vistas of his remote life, and read passages that sound brilliant through Jean-Marc Barr’s gruff voice (though the rushed delivery often sullies the cadence).

Big Sur reeks of film school ambitions and sensibilities that ruin the picture. Throwing on an iTunes playlist of The National is lame, as is having Kerouac deliver a dramatic monologue at the end that feels like a caricature of the spoken passages throughout the film. In the film’s stubbornness to not take a side and present Kerouac in a specific light, Big Sur comes across as a flat, unoffensive tribute to a great poet in the throes of life.

There is another man that Big Sur pays tribute to: Gus Van Sant and his directing on Kurt Cobain quasi-biopic Last Days. Last Days was a film that didn’t offer insight into a revered artist either, but Sant had the good sense to present his subject with the same scale allotted to all humans. Cobain (or the nameless character the represented him) was depicted as a small person in a big world, expansive shots of nature put him in his place. In Sant’s hands, he felt insignificant. But, in Big Sur, Kerouac feels like a holy, larger than life figure with friends that live in his shadow.

It’s great to see a mythical poet on screen, but I was hoping to get a better glimpse at the man behind the words. All I got were the words, making me pine for an audiobook read by Jean-Marc Barr and nothing more.

Jean-Marc Barr