Letter to Kerouac provides thin basis for 'Suicide'
July 10, 1997
Web posted at: 11:06 a.m. EDT (1506 GMT)
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- I've often said that there's a great movie to be
made about the Beat Generation writers of the early 1950s.
Guys like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac
have always been more fascinating to me as people than they
are as writers. You have to suspect that their free-falling
lifestyles would make for some prime entertainment ... if you
could just capture their pharmaceutically speeding energy
without making the actors look like fools.
"Naked Lunch" is probably half that great movie, and half
David Cronenberg getting off on being one sick puppy.
Writer-director Stephen Kay's "The Last Time I Committed
Suicide" isn't even that lucky, with the period details and
the wonderful, driving music (from geniuses like Charlie
Parker, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus) being the most
enjoyable aspects of the whole production.
The story is based on a letter that was sent by Neal Cassady
to Jack Kerouac in the late 1940s, when Cassady was working
at a Goodyear tire factory in Denver. Cassady is the
inspiration for Kerouac's trailblazing novel, "On the Road,"
and later drove the bus for Ken Kesey and the Merry
Pranksters during their highly misguided (and unproductive)
early-'60s LSD experiments.
By all accounts Cassady was a drug- and alcohol-exposed live
wire, John Belushi before there was really a market for
someone like John Belushi. You wouldn't know this from the
way Thomas Jane portrays him in "The Last Time I Committed
Suicide," though. Here, he seems more like a sexually
aggressive Dennis the Menace, with his drinking limited to
your average Friday night intake of Miller High Life and his
more socially questionable pill-popping all but non-existent.
As might immediately be expected from a movie inspired by
what was stuffed into an envelope, the story is mighty thin.
Cassady works at the tire shop, and has a girlfriend, Joan
(Claire Forlani), who inexplicably tries to kill herself one
night. While Joan is recuperating in the hospital, Neal
thoughtfully takes up with a 16-year-old hellcat named Cherry
Mary (Gretchen Mol, a live wire of a completely different
sort.) He also hangs out at the pool hall with a much older
buddy named Harry (pseudo-actor Keanu Reeves). That is all
ye need to know. The rest is supplied in "hey man"
voice-overs by Cassady.
I've always been partial to Burroughs over Kerouac and the
far less prolific Cassady. Even in his younger days,
Burroughs looked and sounded like death warmed over, the
Black Angel in a business suit. He's always seemed vaguely
embarrassed by the course his life took after he started in
on the drug experiments, but Kerouac was a little too
self-satisfied, pretending that fat, drunk and sitting on his
mother's couch is where his "vision" was always leading him.
That's not to say that there wasn't a ton of angst involved,
but it was nothing that a couple of tall cold ones couldn't
Unfortunately, Cassady's voice-over in the movie smacks of
Kerouac's bebop-inspired riffing. Though I know the passage
of time has blunted this stuff, you can't help (during some
of the more purple-prosey moments) envisioning the narrator
as a cartoon tomcat wearing a turtleneck, beret, and a pair
of Ray-Bans. Bongos optional.
Any screenwriter will tell you that voice-over can be a
highly problematic device when writing a script -- too much
and you're being redundant, too little and what's the point
of using it? Kay gets the quantity right, but Cassady's
spelling out of every plot point often seems like nothing
more than a springboard into what is supposed to be a visual
representation of the Beats' fragmented poetry.
This is a big, big mistake. Kay drives himself into a tizzy
trying to make the leap from jabbering language to jabbering
visuals, a transition that's destined to look rather
desperate. You name it and he throws it into the mix -- jump
cuts, tilting cameras, spinning cameras, fake home movies (a
major cliche by now), slow motion, unmotivated zooms, long
dissolves, and unexpected freeze-frames.
It all must have looked good in film school, but powerful
filmmaking, as much as anything else, is knowing what to
leave out. The Beat writers were conveying the racing
thoughts and images that came pouring out at them every day
from the radio, movies, magazines, and their own drug-addled
craniums. On a 30-foot tall screen it looks obvious and
gives you a major headache.
The actors, with one exception, are all quite good. Thomas
Jane is likable enough as Cassady; he just seems to be held
in check by a director who doesn't know how far he wants to
go. Claire Forlani displays a highly charismatic, numbed
beauty as Joan. She's given little to do, but I found myself
waiting for her to show up again during the slower middle
portion of the film. I've never seen her before, but this is
a very promising performance. Gretchen Mol, as I've already
suggested, is the embodiment of Cherry Mary. One hopes that
she doesn't get typecast as world class jailbait.
Then there's Keanu Reeves. Reeves is an absolute mystery to
me, an actor so openly void of talent I wouldn't let him near
a senior class performance of "The Egg and I." But here he
is again, reciting his lines as if they're non-related words
strung together as a memory exercise. He's an actor who begs
for a Burger King uniform, but his hunka-hunka burnin' looks
will keep him periodically in front of me for the rest of my
life ... unless, of course, I outlive him. I'm going to
start working out right now, just to make sure.
"The Last Time I Committed Suicide" is a beer-soaked, but
fairly spruced-up rendering of some pretty sweaty times. The
degrading treatment of the women in the film is its most
offensive element, though this is sadly in keeping with the
characters' world view.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
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