He may be canonized as the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty
in Jack Kerouac
's "On the Road" and as one of Ken Kesey
's real-life Merry Pranksters in the 1960s, but the young Neal Cassady
is an unlikable, unlovable and unadmirable rogue in freshman writer-director Stephen Kay's "The Last Time I Committed Suicide."
Opening on a few screens for a no doubt cursory theatrical run, the low-budget independent has co-star Keanu Reeves
and its proto-Beat Generation milieu to lure in curious hipsters.
Weak, self-absorbed young screw-ups have made for memorable movie characters many times, but even with Thomas Jane
("The Crow: City of Angels") working hard to make him a three-dimensional character, Cassady is often less interesting than the women he loves and loses. Even Reeves as a pathetic vision of what awaits 20-year-old Cassady should he stay in dreary Denver is more of a scene-stealer.
Part of the problem is the chatty, uninvolving narration that dominates the film and continually smooths over the potentially moving dramatic events. It's readily apparent that Kay has struggled to flesh out the scenario, based on Cassady's so-called "Great Sex Letter" he wrote to Kerouac.
Set in the late 1940s, "The Last Time" is so intent on capturing the spirit of youthful revolt, and the powerful allure of sex, that it almost becomes a primer for how to make the most of one's conquests and then run away guiltless from responsibility. It's no secret that the Beat writers were users and abusers of each other and the women in their lives.
The chief victim is Joan (Claire Forlani
), a delicate creature who tries to take her life one night, causing Cassady a great deal of anguish. He's so upset he stops hanging around the hospital to see if she recovers and goes about his merry way. Working the graveyard shift at a tire factory and hanging with drinking and womanizing partner Harry Reeves
), Cassady marks time until he's lured away one eve by a fetching dame named Lizzy (Marg Helgenberger).
But in the film's biggest digression and most pleasant sequences, Cassady recalls a wild affair with underage spitfire Cherry Mary (Gretchen Mol
). Here the Great Sex is indeed inspiring and dangerous, but it's an awkward entracte before we find out that Lizzy's mission is to reintroduce recovered Joan. Almost trapped by his own desires for a normal life with Joan but well on his way to becoming a full-blown rake, Cassady tries and fails to do the right thing.
Using jerky camera work in black-and-white letter-writing sequences, slow motion to capture those cool-guy, cigarette-flicking moments and other diversionary tactics, Kay overloads the film with technique but fails to hide the thinness of the material. A film about the price of liberation from conformity, it's finally far too contrived to make any lasting impression.
THE LAST TIME I COMMITTED SUICIDE
Writer-director Stephen Kay
Producers Edward Bates
, Lousie Rosner
Executive producers Peter Abrams,
Robert L. Levy, J.P. Guerin, Peter Locke,Donald Kushner
, Lawrence Mortorff
Director of photography Bobby Bukowski
Production designer Amy B. Ancona
Editor Dorian Harris
Music Tyler Bates
Neal Thomas Jane
Harry Keanu Reeves
Joan Claire Forlani
Lizzy Marg Helgenberger
Cherry Mary Gretchen Mol
Running time -- 93 minutes
MPAA rating: R