A flavorsome prelude to better-known Beat Generation events, “The Last Time I Committed Suicide” has the right look, attitude and energy. What it doesn’t have is anything more than the slenderest narrative thread. Hip subject and Keanu Reeves’ presence in a supporting role will guarantee medium-profile specialized play, but pic just isn’t substantial enough to generate wider interest.
Anecdotal progress is based on a lengthy letter written to Jack Kerouac by Neal Cassady that greatly influenced Kerouac’s style in subsequent work, particularly his breakthrough, “On the Road.” Cassady never rivaled his close friend’s literary fame — despite all good intentions, he published (posthumously) just one autobiographical tome — but won a certain legendary status as inspiration for Kerouac’s central figures in “On the Road” and “Visions of Cody,” both written in the early ’50s (though not published until late that decade). In the ’60s Cassady maintained countercultural cachet by becoming the driver for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ famous bus odysseys, source of Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” Cassady died from exposure after a long night’s partying in 1968 Mexico, at 42 years.
“Last Time” predates all that, focusing on a period in his life some 20 years earlier. In immediately post-WWII Denver, 20-year-old Cassady (Thomas Jane) is a scruffy Young Turk without much in the way of evident friends or family. He does have a routine, midnight-shift job in a tire yard, some barely articulated creative aspirations and a steady girlfriend in the beauteous Joan (Claire Forlani). The two seem happy together, yet for some reason — not at all explained here — Joan tries to take her life one day. Neal can’t bear seeing her hover near death in the hospital, so he falls in with pool-hall guru Harry (Reeves) and a trio of underage nymphets.
One day a mysterious woman (Marg Helgenberger) turns up at one of Neal’s bar hangouts; it turns out she’s a friend to the fully recovered Joan. But subsequent happy reunion is interrupted by Neal’s sudden need to borrow back a suit from gay friend Ben (Adrien Brody) — Joan’s “return” stirs her boyfriend’s deep longing for picket-fence stability, so he must look good at the next day’s job interview. Promising to be back within an hour, Neal gets waylaid so long by the soused Harry (and then, more seriously, by the police) that this chance at long-term conventional happiness seems shot.
Story sports one major digression, to Neal’s earlier romance with precocious schoolgirl Cherry Mary (Gretchen Mol). Her disapproving mother ends that highly sexed involvement, and also proves significant in the final turn of events. While this “Hollywood Flashback” is amusing and erotic, it does little to deepen our understanding of Neal’s current situation.
Which is entirely vague. The figure’s background, family and otherwise, gets no illumination here; likewise, his failing to even inquire about Joan for two months after her near death proves as inscrutable as her own motivations in attempting suicide. Playwright turned first-time feature helmer Stephen Kay’s dialogue and narration for Neal sport bebop-slangy rhythms that convincingly suggest full-on Beat lingo to come. But he seems barely interested in character depth; on that level, pic isn’t so much “impressionistic” as simply empty.
Too bad, because atmospherically, “Last Time” works well as an evocation of the youthful unrest that would soon find cogent subcultural expression. Bobby Bukowski’s lensing deploys hand-held, fast/slo-mo, time-lapse, freeze-frame, overlapping and occasionally B&W images to suggest Neal’s bottled-up vigor. Excellent use is made of vintage jazz tunes (Mingus, Monk, etc.) as well as some apt newer songs. Period flavor is well managed within modest means, and additional tech contributions are clean and creative.
Playing his first lead after a series of forgettable support turns, Jane provides agitatedly sexual, attention-span-deficit appeal that does somewhat unify Neal’s contrary behaviors — at least more than the script bothers to. Reeves is OK, but far more comfortable in his early bard-of-the-pool-hall pose than he is letting the pathos of a self-described “creepy and needy” figure come through. Other actors are fine within writing limitations.