"Why are we all intimidated by a bunch of jerks who don't know anything about life?" late poet Allen Ginsberg asks in "The Source," Chuck Workman's documentary on the Beat Generation.

But the real question posed by this nearly substance-free portrait of the Beats is: "Why would we want to find out anything more about a bunch of jerks who didn't know anything about life?"

Maybe that sounds a bit unfair. After all, it's not that late writers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Ginsberg probably weren't worth getting to know. It's that writer/director Workman does such a bad, or ineffective, job of telling their stories.

Also, the film's contentions — that the Beats inspired several generations of nonconformists, that they took mood-altering substances, etc. — are so well-known that the whole thing comes off as superficial and not very well researched.

However, "The Source" does score some points for digging up archival interviews with the three and for getting more current interviews with some of their contemporaries, including Ken Kesey (who wrote "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest").

"The Source" attempts to pin down the exact beginning for the movement to a series of fortuitous meetings in New York in 1944 and later meetings with Kesey and Neal Cassady, among others.

It also looks at the lasting effects of the movement, such as influencing — if not inspiring — both the Chicago riots and the Summer of Love, as well as some later-period nonconformist movements.

Lacking substantial footage of the original Beats reading their own works, Workman has Johnny Depp (as Kerouac), Dennis Hopper (as Burroughs) and John Turturro (as Ginsberg) read them instead.

That doesn't necessarily sound like a bad idea — in fact, Hopper as Burroughs sounds like an almost ideal match — but instead it yields some dubious results, especially from the overly dramatic Turturro, whose readings of "Howl" are exactly that.

Admittedly, it does takes at least a little courage to portray your heroes in a sometimes unflattering light — such as when Workman shows one of Kerouac's drunken rambles. (Actually, of the bunch, only Burroughs and Kesey come off particularly well.)

Besides, the film isn't a complete washout. It is well-paced and it does make good use of an effective Philip Glass score, as well as well-known jazz songs by Dizzy Gillespie and others.

"The Source" is not rated but would probably receive an R for profanity, use of crude slang and some sex talk, as well as some discussions of drug use. Running time: 88 minutes.