A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
More perhaps than any other single book, Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road announced an end to the Eisenhower years and the beginning of the narcissistic, rebellious Sixties. It told the story of the first beatniks, those dropouts from the middle class who rode the highways from Maine to Mexico and raised hell, wrote poetry, loved unwisely, drank too well and did the basic engineering on the lifestyle that would eventually be run to exhaustion by the hippies. Kerouac's novel starred a heroic proto-beat named Dean Moriarty, based on the legendary underground figure Neal Cassady. And now in "Heart Beat" we get the story of Neal and Jack and Neal's wife. Sort of.
The movie's based on a memoir written a few years ago by Carolyn Cassady, who was not one of the heroes of On the Road, and who, it now appears, had good reason to be less than enchanted with the beatnik lifestyle. The wives of famous men often have unique outlooks on their wonderful opportunities to live so close to greatness; when Bennett Cerf, visiting the James Joyces in Paris, described Joyce as a genius, Mrs. Joyce dryly replied, "That's all very well for you to say - you don't have to live with the bloody man." Carolyn Cassady's "Heart Beat" comes from the same fervent neighborhood of the soul.
But this movie is another matter altogether. How closely it resembles the facts I cannot say, but it paints a portrait of Jack and Neal as good buddies who drank, sank, hitchhiked, lied and fought their way around the America of the late 1940s (Kerouac described himself and Cassady as "furtives"), and then both fell in love with Carolyn. She married Neal, who stayed at home, sometimes, between time on the road, with Jack and a great deal of additional time spent on applied research into alcoholism. Jack was a drunk, too, and a lot of the movie deals with their attempts to patch things together in the little postwar suburban house in San Francisco where Carolyn tried to maintain a home.
This is not exactly the story we have in memory from the Kerouac legend, and there were long stretches of "Heart Beat" during which I found myself wishing instead for a film version of On the Road, That's unfair, I guess - but what is director John Byrum trying to do in this movie? I'm not sure. The movie's a triumph of art direction, all right; the locations, clothes, lighting, moods, music and whole tone of the performances are designed to lower a kind of nostalgic dropcloth over the story, and we're constantly invited to read greater significance into dialogue and gestures because they took place during these now-lost times.