Movie Review: Big Sur (2013, Dir. Michael Polish)

Big Sur 2013 Dir. Michael Polish

What do you get when you mix beautiful imagery, solid actors, and dialogue-heavy plot-less-ness? Michael Polish’s film version of Jack Kerouac’s novel, Big Sur. This 2013 Sundance selected film was easily the least interesting film I saw at Cinetopia this year, which is upsetting. It easily could have been my favorite.

I am a sucker for beautiful imagery and engaging directorial style. It is my weakness. It is probably why I really enjoyed Park Chan-wook’s Stoker and most Wes Anderson films. What sets those films apart from this one are their characters. The previously mentioned films have intriguing characters that make one want to watch more of it. In most films, they fall apart if there isn’t at least one character who is likable. Otherwise, why would anyone care for what happens? There are no interesting characters in Big Sur. There are no likable characters in Big Sur. And nothing interesting happened.

A brief summary: Jack Duluoz (played by Jean-Marc Barr) wants to get away from fame. He wrote an immensely popular novel (“On The Road”) and everyone knows who he is and wants to know him. He goes to a cabin in Big Sur. He gets sick of that cabin and goes back to L.A., where he originally was. He gets some friends, and goes back to the cabin. Becoming bored again (along with the audience), he returns to L.A. Soon enough, he decides to go back to the cabin. He goes back to L.A. Game over.  Oh yeah, spoiler alert.

Watching someone in beautiful locations become bored is not as interesting as it sounds. The makers of this film apparently thought otherwise. Yes, there are some good aspects. I loved the stream-of-thought narration that periodically occurs during the film. Those bits are perfectly done, and almost give the impression that something is happening. In fact, at the end, it seems like a character development might finally happen via voiceover! Alas, it did not. It just ended.

There are several senseless scenes scattered throughout. There is a montage in which Duluoz is sitting on a chair and does not move for a long, long time. Weeks. There was a scene at the end where Duluoz is tripping out, fearing God and others. Maybe they were going for symbolism, but it came across as pointless to me.

I was staying in contact with a few others over the course of the festival. Someone who also saw this film loved it. He had read the book before and said that the film stayed true to it. Maybe the novel elaborated upon the characters (or, you know, developed them), so he already cared for them. Yet, should I have to read the book before going to see a film? Having not previously experienced Kerouac’s novel, I did not care for anything or anyone ahead of time.

But should I have to? In order to appreciate a film, should it be deemed a requirement to read a novel to enjoy the film version?  This is an argument I have come across many, many times. Some people love certain films because they read all the further readings or interviews with the author which fill in logic gaps or things along these lines. If one enjoys the film enough to want some additional material, sure, I get that. In fact, I do that from time to time. After watching Cosmopolis, I went out and bought Don DeLillo’s novel, and I would highly recommend giving it a read. A film should be able to stand on its own. No additional readings should be required to explain things.

Michael Polish, the writer/director, seemed to have assumed everyone watching has read some of Kerouac’s work and is familiar with who he is. But I know next to nothing about him. Part of the film could have explained who the character is and why we as an audience should care for him.

The ‘60s setting of the film was quite interesting to look at. All of the actors seemed to capture the tone those from that time had. The set design was pretty great. In fact, it felt like someone had time traveled back and filmed people from that time period. The problem is those time travelers could have been people much, much more interesting.


This is a review of a film screened at the 2013 Cinetopia Film Festival in Ann Arbor Michigan, which took place between June 6 and June 9.


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