Given the endless fascination that people have for 1950s beatnik culture and especially for the work of Beat author Jack Kerouac, it’s surprising that no one’s attempted a proper biopic about the man. In fact, cursory research suggests this middling melodrama includes the first fictionalized onscreen depiction of Kerouac, who is played by the underrated actor John Heard as an earnest young man striving for meaning and recognition while also trying to reconcile the gap that exists between those two things. Yet Heart Beat isn’t primarily about Kerouac, who is merely one prong in a romantic triangle. The other people involved are Kerouac’s notorious pal Neal Cassady, an inspiration for one of the major characters in Kerouac’s classic 1957 book On the Road, and Cassaday’s wife, Carolyn, who wrote the memoir from which Heart Beat was adapted. The way that Kerouac gets lost in the shuffle is indicative of the narrative problems that plague Heart Beat. Although clearly made with care and conviction, the movie is indecisive and unfocused, trying to tell several stories at the same time and therefore serving none of those stories well.
In the broadest strokes, Heart Beat explores the friendship between Jack (Heard), a straight-laced guy fascinated with the way Beats ignore the restrictions of Establishment culture, and Neal (Nick Nolte), a wild man who lives the Beatnik lifestyle to an extreme. Caught in the middle is Carolyn (Sissy Spacek), a society girl who impulsively joins Jack and Nick for an adventure into the unknown. Although Jack falls hard for Carolyn, he waits too long to make a move, and Neal swoops Carolyn into a torrid romance that later resolves into a conventional marriage. Before that happens, Carolyn is present for the creation of On the Road, which occasions a parting of the ways between Jack, who longs for mainstream success, and Neal, who resents having his life transformed into prose. Other friends drift in and out of the main characters’ vagabond existence, including Ira (Ray Sharkey), a loudmouth poet based upon the real-life Beat icon Alan Ginsburg. (Ira’s principal shtick involves screaming “cocksucker” in public places, which has the effect of reducing Ginsberg to a vulgar caricature.)
During the first half of Heart Beat, in which writer-director John Byrum tracks the emergence of the romantic triangle, the movie is dull and meandering. During the second half, things get spicier, because Jack experiences success around the same time that Carolyn, Jack, and Neal attempt living as a threesome, with Carolyn moving between the beds of the two men she loves. Perhaps because of limitations in the source material (meaning Carolyn Cassidy’s book) and perhaps because of a failure of imagination on Byrum’s part, Heart Beat fails to genuinely illuminate its characters, thereby falling into the trap of simply re-creating interesting moments as museum dioramas. At its worst, the movie is a lifeless frame showcasing Jack Fisk’s immaculate production design, and sometimes the shadows cast by venetian blinds are the most compelling things onscreen. At its best, the movie gives Nolte room to portray Cassady as a merry prankster high on exploration and spontaneity.
Heart Beat: FUNKY