The Beat Poets as a drugged-out group of Hardy Boys
As literary advice, the notion that beleaguered writers must be willing to “kill your darlings” in order to find the truth in a passage or overall story is daring indeed. Striking that lovely line – crafted with such care and infused with panache – might just sink the whole piece, or it could guarantee a myth for the ages.
So, it is no surprise that co-writer (along with Austin Bunn) and director John Krokidas seems intent on borrowing the idea, as well as the line, for his film, which gathers the great Beats together – Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) – and drops them in a murder mystery years before they carved their legends in stone. Ginsberg starts off as a beguilingly earnest student in love with the idea of words, with a poet for a father (played as a loving straight man by the usually twisted David Cross) – the kind recognized by the younger Ginsberg’s professors. Things change for Ginsberg, though, after he meets Lucien Carr (played by the seductively demented Dane DeHaan, who can be nothing other than seductive and demented). Carr challenges everything that Ginsberg believes he’s signed up to learn about words and then, with a well-worn axe, starts to hack away at Ginsberg’s notions about life and love.
The interplay between the two recalls an idealized notion of what university life is supposed to be about, young minds caught in the act of learning and then attempting to test the limits of this newfound knowledge. It is in these exchanges the lesson of the title takes on its real meaning. Those new facts seem so precious and vital, but can they withstand the full-on assault of heated debate and the inevitable confrontation with the practicality of the real world?
Let’s see, the actors seem to say, diving headlong into characters are more than mere words on the page. These very real men are enduring legends of literature and pop culture. Radcliffe, Foster and DeHaan certainly embrace the directive, killing any and all past associations audiences have with them from other films through their bold leaps into this material. But they go the additional step by attempting to slay our expectations for these men – especially Radcliffe and Foster – because Ginsberg and Burroughs are the more recognizable figures. Foster as more of a character actor without ever having been the face of a franchise fairs quite nicely, disappearing inside the suit and voice of Burroughs.
A much more supreme effort falls to Radcliffe, seeking to bury associations with Harry Potter. But he acquits himself, possibly because there might be something of the anointed boy wizard in Ginsberg at the time of this story. We watch – knowing the man he will become – and Radcliffe bears the seed of greatness in his wide eyes and in his cracking voice that will soon find its way.
The problem with this little-remembered episode from the Beat Generation’s early days is it obviously wasn’t worth keeping in their canonical backstory and no amount of trumped up thrills can make this a moment worth savoring. We see Ginsberg’s first, not-so-tentative encounters with drugs (intriguingly rendered), but the murder mystery taking root slips into “Scooby Doo” territory with no real hook like Burroughs’s William Tell reenactment, which resulted in the death of his wife. This aside obviously wasn’t much of a “Darling” at all.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.