In September 1951 literary icon-to-be William S. Burroughs proposed livening up a dull evening with “our William Tell act,” taking presumed aim at the shot glass atop his equally sloshed wife’s head. He missed. From this incident grew the author’s “exorcisive” drive to write (or so he claimed) and a lasting Beat-culture mystery. It also provoked some less starry-eyed observers’ view that Burroughs was a wife-killer who got off scot-free. One would be hard-pressed to find another true story so rich in ambiguity, extreme behavior and celebrity gossip value, but “Beat” manages to make the saga pedestrian and dull. A weak, flavorless screenplay and less-than-compelling lead turns by Courtney Love and Kiefer Sutherland make this the most inert hepster biopic since 1980’s flatliner “Heart Beat.” Pic doesn’t howl; it does, however, mutter “direct-to-cable.”
The film begins in 1944 New York, where Columbia journalism student Joan Vollmer (Courtney Love) is already living the semi-wild life, gulping down pharmaceutical Benzedrine and entertaining a host of male miscreants, including young Allen Ginsberg (Ron Livingston) and the older Burroughs (Kiefer Sutherland), as well as hunky would-be sailors Jack Kerouac (Daniel Martinez) and Lucien Carr (Norman Reedus). Nearly everyone seems smitten with Carr, particularly Dave Kammerer (Kyle Secor). When latter’s sexual desperation turns assaultive during a park stroll, he ends up stabbed to death. Lucien dumps the body in the Hudson; he gets a two-year prison stint.
Seven years later, Joan and William have married, despite his openly gay proclivities, and have added a male offspring to Joan’s daughter from prior wedlock. This superficially normal domestic setup is forced to Mexico City by narcotics charges. Ginsberg and Carr (now a UPI correspondent) visit the couple there, only to find Burroughs has already left town with his current, reluctant boyfriend-for-hire (Sam Trammell). Bored Joan is glad nonetheless to see the two men, and it’s clear immediately that Lucien carries a torch for her. The trio head off on a road trip, spending a couple of days in which the heterosexual pair’s will-they-or-won’t-they tease is punctuated by weary statements like “If you stare back into the abyss long enough it stares back at you.”
A returned William endures his spouse’s gay-sexcapade cracks even as he suspects her of cheating with Carr. Waiting to sell a handgun for booze money, they blandly pull the William Tell trick, with unfortunate results.
That this incident has no dramatic impact whatsoever can be blamed partly on scripter-helmer Gary Walkow’s (“The Trouble With Dick,” “Notes From Underground”) rote, rhythmless direction. But greater fault lies with a screenplay that renders these flamboyant, puzzling figures curiously dull, their relationships unilluminated. We’re told William and Joan love each other, yet whatever complex understandings they arrived at in messy real life are absent here, replaced by a banal mutual jealousy.
Likewise, Joan keeps saying, “I love my kids,” but the tikes rate almost no screen time. While her alcoholism is signaled (though Love doesn’t make much of it), Joan’s benny-addicted paranoia isn’t; ditto William’s on-and-off heroin usage. The gnarled sexual and emotional ties between Burroughs, Ginsberg (with whom he admitted being obsessed for years) and Kerouac (a nondescript minor figure here) also go unmined, if they’re mentioned at all.
What’s left are talky menages — Ginsberg makes sad-puppy eyes at an indifferent Carr while latter pines for Joan; later she and William mope over their separate infidelities. Dialogue is by turns trivial and pretentious, period flavor scant. There’s little here to suggest that three of these characters would soon become literary trailblazers. They don’t even seem especially Beat — more like used-up cocktail party casualties.
None of the thesps can surmount the poorly written characters. Sutherland isn’t tall or cadaverous enough to evoke Burroughs physically; still, one expects more interpretive depth from him than what emerges as just a so-so raspy vocal imitation.
It’s weird enough that Love is playing her third celebrity-spouse figure; a weirder coincidence is that just before her famous husband’s suicide, Kurt Cobain collaborated with Burroughs on a recording project. Love and Cobain’s drug problems at the time, echoed here in the central relationship, have been well chronicled. Too bad this bizarre instance of art-imitating-life-mirroring-other-lives doesn’t tap more performance life, let alone artistry.
Like fellow bottle-blond pop figure Madonna, Love is comfortable before the camera, but in character parts can’t seem to communicate with it. Given her meatiest opportunity so far, she tries hard yet makes little impression. We’re supposed to see Joan as a sardonic, ballsy yet tragic figure, her possible writing talent neglected. But no interior life comes across. When Lucien gushes “She’s so fucking exciting!,” you might wonder who he’s talking about. (It’s worth noting that even Madonna has played this role better — i.e., her surprisingly vivid turn as a boozy thesp done in by a lover’s Russian Roulette challenge in Abel Ferrara’s little-seen “Dangerous Game.”)
Stuck acting love-struck in a chemistry-free zone, third principal Reedus is unmemorable but OK. Other performers sink with the material.
Modestly mounted feature has adequate production design by Rando Schmook and some pretty Mexican landscape lensing by Ciro Cabello. But staging, pacing, score, et al are uninspired to tedious.
For the record, story was already dramatized before, albeit briefly, in the quasi-biographical fantasy David Cronenberg spun from Burroughs’ cult novel “Naked Lunch,” with Peter Weller and Judy Davis as the duo. Contrary to epilogue titles here, which go on forever, Burroughs wasn’t “absolved” of murder, but rather fled to Mexico before his trial.