“Show, don’t tell” is a ubiquitous mantra in the literary world, and perhaps an overused one; it’s certainly a frequent placeholder for more detailed commentary, often when the latter is most needed. It’s not hard to imagine a young, reactionary, or merely bored storyteller attempting to build a finished product by breaking this rule as frequently and aggressively as possible, in search of novelty, if not necessarily quality. Such a quest would certainly explain how Big Sur came to be: frantically paced and excessively reliant on voiceover, Michael Polish’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name fails, if it even really tries, to find its own uniquely cinematic language of storytelling, and instead relies on simply retelling Kerouac’s text, often word for word. Striving for the sustained reverie of a Terrence Malick film, Polish has instead condensed Kerouac’s novel into a PowerPoint presentation.
The film, like the novel, follows Kerouac’s surrogate, Jack Duluoz (Jean-Marc Barr, atypically dull), as he crumbles under the weight of newfound celebrity following the success of On the Road. Crippled by creative inertia, alcoholism, and his sudden responsibilities as a Leader of a Movement, Duluoz hopes that a series of visits to the Big Sur cabin owned by his friend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards), will help him regain personal and creative resolve. Self-doubt, obsessive reflection, and reflexivity of meaning color Duluoz’s troubled perspective, but these themes find no corollary in Polish’s procedural approach to narrative. Characters and plot points are established rapidly and efficiently via hyperactive editing and choice quotes of text assigning thematic significance before a brief, portentous montage ushers in the next set piece. The result is a disconnect between word and image: The viewer is informed of a world of chaos, obsession, and irresolution, but has no cinematic means of accessing or understanding it.
Individual sequences hover close to poignancy: a charmingly goofy, wordless game of hide and seek between Duluoz and a mysterious friend; a hushed exchange between Duluoz and Carolyn (an underused Radha Mitchell), wife of Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), that hauntingly skirts the subject of infidelity. But poorly judged words obstruct these scenes’ potential richness. In the rare sequences that rely primarily on dialogue, clunker lines like “I’ll be your something” and “You’re nobody’s fool, Jack” spoil the mood with their triteness. Even worse, Barr’s voiceover presides over nearly every minute of screen time like a grumpy judge, allocating specific interpretations of every moment, outlining entire characters’ motivations and fates, and often literally overpowering the voices of other characters and their perspectives. It’s a suffocating tactic, one that effectively seals the film off from interpretation. The best cinema allows the viewer to observe, to be their own Kerouac/Duluoz, interpreting and reinterpreting, participating in and contributing to the work on screen. Big Sur only has time for one Kerouac, however, and ultimately that’s everyone’s loss.