Ideas vs melodrama in meandering beat odyssey ‘On the Road’
There are about 45 minutes of a great movie in Walter Salles’ adaptation of On the Road, the thinly fictionalized Jack Kerouac novel/memoir that helped define the beat generation of the early 1950s. These occur mainly at the beginning of the film, informed by the writer protagonist’s narration, when the characters are first meeting up and hanging out, pinging ideas, dreams, and creative energy off of each other like random electrical charges, and in the final reflective scenes, when the writer lets go of his last illusions and starts hammering out Kerouac’s spontaneous “bop” prose on the typewriter.
Which is to say the film is most effective when it sticks to Kerouac’s voice, his thoughts and observations on the generation his book came to symbolize. In between these two poles of interest, however, lies the bulk of Salles’ film, an increasingly frantic and pointless gallop back and forth across continental North America. Yes, it successfully mimics the characters’ headlong charge in pursuit of experience (i.e.: sex, drugs, jazz, and alcohol), but the more of the book’s physical territory Salles covers—New York City, Nebraska, New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver, Mexico—the less focused the film’s ideas become. Without the transformative power of Kerouac’s words, we’re stuck watching repetitive scenes of frenzied partying, which soon pales as a spectator sport.
Salles is the Brazilin director whose excellent The Motorcycle Diaries chronicled the early years of Che Guevara. In adapting Kerouac’s book for the screen with Motorcycle scriptwriter Jose Rivera, Salles captures the restlessness of the first postwar generation, just coming of age in 1947, when the story begins, and eager to reject the war-weary domesticity of their parents.
Aspiring writer (and Kerouac alter-ego) Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is living with his French-Canadian mother in New York City when mutual friends introduce him to wild man Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a thinly-disguised version of Neal Cassady. Sam is quickly spellbound by Dean and his teenage bride, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), their freewheeling lifestyle of booze, dope, and sexual ménages, and forays to jazz clubs, where Dean waxes eloquent on the musicians who get “It,” the essential life force all the young men long to possess.
Another member of their group in scrawny, frizzy-haired, bespectacled poet and Allen Ginsberg surrogate, Carlo Marx (the terrific Tom Sturridge), who’s also smitten with the omni-sexual Dean. When they light out for “the West” together, Sal soon follows, the first of many cross-country excursions he will make over the next couple of years, either with Dean, or trailing in his wake, in search of the life experience he craves as a writer—baling hay in the Midwest, picking cotton in a migrant camp in the south, loading boxcars in California. Filmmaker Salles suggests the mileage logged with initially effective, but finally overused montages of landscapes flying past various vehicular windows until all becomes a blur.
But as exhilarating a Muse as Dean is (we see Sal scribbling furiously in a notebook every chance he gets), his irresponsible selfishness makes him as unreliable a friend as he is a husband and father. Dean’s cavalier treatment of his women—including second wife, Camille (Kirsten Dunst), who he abandons in San Francisco with their two babies to pursue his own adventures—should give Sal a clue. That the audience tires of their deteriorating bromance so long before Sal figures it out robs their last encounter of the resonance it ought to have.
Still, the actors work hard. Riley anchors the film with his quiet, yet formidable presence as life-hungry Sal. With a surprisingly deep, authoritative voice, and his sly, sing-songy mantra (“Yes, yes, yes!”), Hedlund gives Dean the right edgy, if shallow persuasiveness. Steve Buscemi pops up in a nifty cameo, and the great Viggo Mortensen steals his few scenes as Old Bull Lee (read: William S. Burroughs), the others’ profane patron saint, who has Dean’s number from the get-go. (And, yes, that’s Amy Adams as his chief acolyte, scrubbing floors with the womenfolk while the men talk poetry.)
But as rich as it is in the spirit and details of its era, the film devolves into melodrama when it loses the sense of introspection that would give it a deeper meaning.
ON THE ROAD
★★1/2 (out of four)
With Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart.
Written by Jose Rivera. From the book by Jack Kerouac.
Directed by Walter Salles. An IFC Films release. Rated R. 124 minutes.
Special Opening Night Event:
Q&A with Santa Cruz locals Jami Cassady Ratto and John Allen Cassady to discuss their father, Neal Cassady, the legacy of On The Road, and the influence of the Beat Generation in the Santa Cruz art scene. At the Del Mar, Friday, only, following the 7 p.m. showing of On The Road.)