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Letter to Kerouac provides thin basis for 'Suicide'

movie.review 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 settle.

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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