Kill Your Darlings
Opens Fri., Nov. 15 at Meridian, Sundance, and Lincoln Square. Rated R. 100 minutes.
The Beat generation grew up on movies (and jazz and jukeboxes and Rimbaud), but it hasn’t been well served by the movies. Howl, On the Road, and Big Sur are among recent efforts to capture that boundary-breaking time; Kill Your Darlings is earlier and much more specific, tackling one crime and a few months on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where a naive freshman arrives at Columbia University in 1944. His name? Allen Ginsberg, the shy son of a New Jersey poet and a mad housewife. That Daniel Radcliffe plays the young Ginsberg means people will take notice of this film. (Meanwhile, his Harry Potter colleague Rupert Grint provides minor comic relief in Charlie Countryman, also out this week.) Radcliffe has been on a tear since Deathly Hallows, working hard and often to prove he’s got a future outside Hogwarts.
He does, and there’s much to commend about how he turns a watchful virgin into a shrewd campus survivor. I just wish the story—by Austin Bunn and first-time director John Krokidas—better served his talents. Ginsberg is initially awed by fellow student Lucien Carr (DiCaprio DNA culture Dane DeHaan), a privileged, blond, romantic WASP so unlike himself. Carr has other male admirers, including William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster, perfect), David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), and—in a less sexual way—Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Students of Beat literature know how and why all these famous names actually converged; for younger readers, let’s just say that a killing links them.
Nothing dates faster than your father’s bohemia. The filmmakers do everything possible to make a 70-year-old murder mystery seem fresh. Kill Your Darlings is aggressively overscored with anachronistic tunes, overedited to match the amphetamines, and overserious about these poets’ grand sense of themselves. This self-declared “Libertine Circle” tears through the Village and Harlem, their strenuous jollity and campus hijinks supposedly corresponding to the coming literary revolution. (Howl and On the Road would be published in 1955 and ’57, respectively.) But sometimes dorm-room bullshit sessions are nothing more than that, and the movie never lets Allen and company relax in this hothouse of homoerotic camaraderie; they’re too busy posing on pedestals.
This stridently unsubtle film is afraid of showing the dull business of writing, yet I prefer its quieter moments—Allen’s proud father (David Cross) reading his college admissions letter; the tart disapproval of Kerouac’s neglected girlfriend (Elizabeth Olsen); or Allen finally summoning the nerve to cruise a sailor in a gay bar. Unlike Ginsberg’s poetry, Kill Your Darlings seems to have been written in all-caps.