By Christopher Bell | The Playlist August 4, 2011 at 4:18AM
Best known for his forward, concise, and unyielding documentaries attacking big business, the government, and the media, filmmaker Alex Gibney takes a brief sabbatical from the "heavy issues" and partners up with frequent editing partner Alison Ellwood for the Ken Kesey LSD-extravaganza "Magic Trip." The two cobble together footage and audio recordings from a free-wheelin' cross-country jaunt to the World's Fair in New York lead by the "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" scribe, the end result feeling something like a cross between Gibney's own "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" and last year's enjoyable "Lennon NYC." However, much like those examples, those who are uninterested in Kesey and his generation (or worse, can't even stomach it) won't find much to bark about.
Enamored by the possibilities contained in filmmaking and Jack Kerouac's "On The Road," the self-proclaimed "Merry Band of Pranksters" (each with their own nicknames but consisting of the aforementioned scribe, real-life "On the Road" character Neal Cassady, Kesey's wife, and a few more unfortunately interchangeable members) bought a bus, designed it in a way that can only be read as "hippie" and began their journey of drugs and free love with celluloid and mics in tow. Still, a gung-ho spirit doesn't grant you the ability to navigate the highways nor does it teach you camera ins-and-outs; consequently, the journey resulted in dozens of starts and stops and hundreds of hours of sometimes-crude footage and unlinkable sound. Part of that lends the flick its charm, though, and the pair of directors are able to construct an actual movie from post-hop interviews and Stanley Tucci's narration, jumping from the road trip to the author's feelings on the 'Cuckoo's Nest' screen-adaptation and his time as a guinea-pig for a government sponsored LSD test. The latter proves to be the most interesting segment as Kesey describes the sensation to a nurse in a beat-like fashion, the film animating his words playfully (akin to the Lennon film) and visually interpreting whatever bizarre observation he makes (which includes the recording device becoming a frog). Though it's not without some humor, the end result is less stoner-silly and more eerie and disturbing.
Gibney and Ellwood never play with this tone again, and the majority of time is spent on the expedition to the Big Apple, with various pranksters turning tail and dropping out due to the constant road-blocks. It may sound superficial, but if you're of a younger age, it will be hard to care about those that aren't well-known in their own right (which would be Kesey and Cassady), especially seeing as the rest of them blend together no matter how many times the directors flash their names on the screen. They don't do enough to flesh out every individual which results in them never feeling like an ensemble or a team -- just lackeys for the more recognizable players. One is described to be "crazy" and more or less a "handfull" on his worst days, but there's little in the movie to prove this so we end up simply taking their word for it.
Still, the hi-jinks are amusing enough, and completing the free-spirited/don't-care attitude is the typically-swift Gibney pacing and a hefty amount of amateur camera work, about 1/4 of which is affected by light-leaks and spots. It's a great peek at a time long-gone in a, dare we say it, fubu (for us by us for the uncultured) attitude. The more incredible inclusions are a still-segregated New Orleans, an age-old Manhattan, and the inevitable World's Fair; things that could've been given more of a spotlight based on their frozen-in-time allure. Whether it was lack of a rolling camera on the prankster's part or the filmmakers' insistence on moving forward is unclear, but what is shown is fascinating regardless.
After expressing disappointment in the fair and rolling into the farm house of LSD advocate and Nixon's "most dangerous man in America" Timothy Leary (complete with a not-so-warm welcome), whatever binding the group had slowly started to unwind. Kerouac, in a special appearance and looking as bored as ever, somehow signals the end times: Cassady stays behind, Kesey is picked up on marijuana charges, and the Merry Pranksters are more or less put on hold. Here is where the film similarly unfurls, smacking together a short segment focusing on the author's imprisonment and his subsequent "LSD Graduation" event with the Grateful Dead. Such a subject is ripe for its own movie -- these guys, of all people, are telling people to not over-indulge in their drug use -- and maybe a better one, too. But here, much like the group dynamic, it's far too lightly touched, and without the proper developing it might as well have been excised. When not weaving other elements through the road-trip main "narrative" things get very slow and ultimately feel weak and half-hearted.
Their intentions were good, but the directing duo are never able to fully capture the joy that the Merry Pranksters experienced on their ill-conceived and drug-addled odyssey towards a destination that couldn't possibly live up to expectations. Even so, we can't help but feel like old curmudgeons if we write the entire thing off as a pointless excursion. Yes, there's some opportunity wasted and the feeling of being an outside spectator rather than part of the gang is something that never quite dissipates, even well-into the flick. But "pointless" is a term too harsh for both a group and film that are so harmless and unoffensive; as a movie it may not be successful in completely roping one in but it's still affable and pleasant to partake and it's not so bad to just be along for the ride. [B-]