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'Darlings' keeps alive page of Beat history

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 5:55 p.m.
Sony Pictures Classics
Daniel Radcliffe in 'Kill Your Darlings'

And you thought the Beat Generation was self-aware.

Wait till you see “Kill Your Darlings,” John Krokidas' film about the birth of the Beats, chronicling how Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr met in New York in the 1940s, got hopped up on reefer, speed and jazz and tried to tear the literary establishment apart at the seams. It's also framed by a real-life murder story that mostly distracts; what we want to see are these men throwing off what they considered the shackles of convention.

Yet, the cast, led by Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan, is compelling enough to get past some of Krokidas' overtly self-conscious style. Literary types often fall prey to pretension. So do people making movies about literary types. “Kill Your Darlings” occupies some in-between place, with young, intelligent actors working hard at being gritty as their director makes sure we see every ounce of effort.

Ginsberg, as a freshman at Columbia University, is able to escape his troubled home life with his father (David Cross), a poet, and his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who bounces in and out of psychiatric hospitals. He soon meets the older Carr, with whom he is fascinated. Carr brings him into his odd circle, which includes Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Kerouac (Jack Huston).

It also includes David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man who writes Carr's papers for him in exchange for sex. (For all Carr's cajoling of Ginsberg and Kerouac to come up with something revolutionary, he can't create anything himself.) Kammerer is increasingly jealous of Ginsburg and the others, with whom Carr is trying to craft a literary movement.

Ginsberg, inspired, begins in-class debates with one of his professors (John Cullum) about the nature of, and need for, rhyme and meter. He is also figuring out his sexuality; he obviously is smitten with Carr, though it isn't clear whether Carr feels the same way or is just using him.

We know what happens to the people, most of them, and their movement. The murder story is less well-known. The way Krokidas presents it, it seems like it wandered in from another movie.

Still, it's intriguing to watch younger versions of the celebrated artists try to work out their futures, and the future of writing (for a while, at least). Radcliffe is good, and Foster is a hoot as the druggy, aloof Burroughs. But our focus keeps coming back to Carr, thanks to DeHaan's performance. He's arrogant and maddening. And kind of sad.

You wouldn't want “Kill Your Darlings” to be the only information you ever get about the Beats. But it's a decent introduction for the uninitiated, and interesting enough to those who know the story.

Bill Goodykoontz is a staff writer for the Arizona Republic.

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