Sometimes in film, actors so fully inhabit the roles of historical figures that they don't just capture the essence of the human being, they become even more vivid and convincing than footage of the actual person. Think Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan.
But whatever you do, don't think Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg. His mealy-mouthed performance as a college-aged Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings is so completely divorced from the person he's meant to portray that all thoughts of the poet are inaccessible. It will only distract you to try. In place of the poet's ejaculative, adenoidal New Jersey drawl, Radcliffe speaks in a wobbly transatlantic mumble—North Dakota by way of Hogwarts—with an emotional range that spans buttermilk tepidity and petulant whinging. Even his smile appears to be a cringe.
So forget Ginsberg, at least as you know him publicly: Consider Radcliffe, instead, to be some weak-willed kid who does a lot of drugs at Columbia with an uncanny facsimile of William Burroughs (Ben Foster) that might as well be animatronic, plus a great galumphing jock named Jack Kerouac and a pretty-boy narcissist named Lucien Carr, the latter played with arrestingly sociopathic charm by Dane DeHaan.
And indeed, it's Carr who's the real focal point of the story. He's interestingly complex, both self-pitying and vainly self-regarding, a genuine victim and also an overt manipulator who trades on his sexuality to cozen term papers from an older man who is his stalker, his "guardian angel," and probably the ruiner of his youth. Ginsberg is plainly in love with Carr. Kerouac is also entranced. And the camera loves him, too.
Too bad, then, that we spend so much time with Radcliffe, presumably on the notion that we want to watch the great Ginsberg take shape from lumpen clay. But this gambit falls flat. We're stuck watching the watcher as he quite literally masturbates his way to a sort-of-OK poem, which he reads dramatically on a boat to show the world who he really is. And what he is, unfortunately, is weak tea.
It's a good thing for this muddled, diffuse film that Carr, at least, is composed of much stronger stuff. DeHaan's performance is not enough on its own to make this a good film. But it's certainly enough to make it interesting.
Critic's Grade: C+
SEE IT: Kill Your Darlings is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.