What better day than Jack Kerouac’s birthday to look at a few of the films produced in this century about The Beats. Notwithstanding David Cronenberg’s treatment of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch (1991) with Peter Weller and Judy Davis as Bill and Joan, I’ve recently seen four films released since 2000 about lives of notable writers who comprised The Beats. There are at least four more movies on topic I haven’t seen.
Beat (2000) This lumbering thing, the story of Bill and Joan Burroughs, stars Kiefer Sutherland as William Burroughs which is hilarious miscasting for about 10 minutes and excruciating thereafter, and Courtney Love as Joan Burroughs, ditto. If you get to act Burroughs at least try for “the voice!” Sutherland soft peddles it unconvincingly as the needy gay man on vacation with his boyfriend. His fedora and tinted glasses suggest Burroughs more than he does. Awful! Meanwhile Joan goes away with Allen Ginsberg (played by heavy black framed glasses on the face of Ron Livingston) and Lucien Carr who are sorting through their boring sexual stuff. They keep their underwear on for the skinny-dipping scene! Courtney becomes fag hag supreme but, alas, they eventually get back together so Bill can accidentally shoot her in the head. By demonstrating the minimum amount of sexual authenticity this movie ends up being dishonest, visual ipecac. Everyone phones this movie in. Don’t answer.
Howl (2010) Things start to gradually improve now. Howl traces the creation and subsequent legal proceedings surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 epic poem called Howl. The role of Ginsberg is played by – take a deep breath – James Franco! I know, WTF! More miscasting with some hilarity ensuing but again wearing thin quickly. The heavy black framed glasses suggested Ginsberg more than Franco did or could. I was, however, won over by his live reading of the whole poem in a coffeehouse which is threaded throughout the movie. Franco pumped some life and relevance into the moribund poem if not into the character. Cassidy, Kerouac, Orlovsky and even Ferlinghetti turn up. Some sexual honesty.
On the Road (2012) Finally someone completed a movie based on Kerouac’s classic Beat adventure and it’s the best of the bunch. This rich and expansive portrayal of post-war America partly succeeds at explaining the creative thirst that propelled a cabal of New Vision literary figures to define a generation. Focused on the actual writing of the book and the experiences and people that inspired it, I enjoyed On the Road‘s playfulness, landscapes and characterizations. Sam Riley seems too innocent as Kerouac at the beginning but becomes more convincing as his character loosens up, ages and starts to write. Vitto Mortensen as Bill Burroughs nails the man’s voice, mannerisms, intelligence and insouciance. But the glue that holds this movie together and steals every scene is the Neal Cassidy character, named Dean Moriarty, and played to the hilt, so to speak, by Garrett Hedlund. As the liberated sexual change agent who transforms others simply by being in his charismatic presence, Hedlund breathes life into the rest of the cast and the story and ultimately inspires Kerouac’s novel. Steve Buscemi makes a brief but satisfying appearance. On the Road is the most sexually honest of these four movies.
Kill Your Darlings (2013) Very loosely based on the murder of a gay man by Lucien Carr, a friend of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, this distasteful and rather dull thing just flops sideways and vomits a little blood with breakfast. Potter boy Daniel Radcliffe, who was typecast early and shall never escape from that cinematic purgatory even with heavy black framed glasses, poorly portrays Ginsberg and it’s not even fun to watch. Awful squared! Kerouac by Jack Huston isn’t quite awful and Burroughs portrayed by Ben Foster at least gives the voice an honest try. However, the writing sucks and the plot sucks. I hated this dishonest and boring movie.
Allen Ginsberg: Tom Sturridge in On the Road. He wore the glasses best and could actually have been Jewish.
William Burroughs: Vitto Mortensen in On the Road hands down.
Neal Cassidy: Garrett Hedlund in On the Road. I like this young actor who was vastly underused in Inside Llewyn Davis. He has several movies coming out soon.
Jack Kerouac: no clear winner so, for consistency, I give Sam Riley in On the Road the nod by default. See real Jack’s handsome face and hear me read his Pome on Doctor Sax 1:49
If you want to watch any of these movies, my obvious recommendation is On the Road.
Now You See Me (2013) A wonderfully conceived set-up about illusionists and grand theft is almost scuttled by a dumb romance between two sub par actors, Mark Ruffalo and Alma Dray. Fast forward every time either one is on screen and you’ll have a tight little movie about magic with a satisfying ending. The four horsemen played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Ilsa Fisher and Dave Franco get all the good lines (“Nothing is ever locked.”) and ideas and mercifully sail above the predictable understory. 75% fun!
A Field in England (2013) Ending with weirdness. Back in the days of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) half a dozen soldiers of indeterminate allegiance converge in an English field where strange and unpredictable things occur after they consume a soup made of magic mushrooms. Ben Wheatley’s latest nightmare in black and white with adequate dollops of oddness took me somewhere I’d never been before. Occasionally the cast strikes a tableau vivant, posing almost motionless. Digging for treasure, death, bizarre sex, zero historical significance and strangeness abound. I enjoyed it on many inexplicable levels. You might not.