March 21, 2013
An eternal fountain of adolescence, Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" went through many permutations between its point of origin, 1948, and its point of notorious, divisive publication, 1957. The best description of it came from Kerouac himself, in a journal entry written after his first cross-country road trip in 1948. The book he had in mind, he said, was about "two guys hitchhiking to California in search of something they don't really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else." There's a simple beauty to that. The question is: How do you film an extended yearning?
The greatest movies figure it out, visually and emotionally, and as it has been said, the noblest use of a movie camera is to capture the moment across a human face when a mind is being changed by something, or someone. The vagabonds of "On the Road" perpetually change their Benzedrine-addled minds about where to be, who they are, why they're alive. So while Kerouac's odyssey lacks conventional narrative or novelistic beats (though it comes with plenty of the other kind), the restlessness of the prose has its own cinematic allure.
For decades, filmmakers have tried to secure the screen rights and figure out how to make a satisfying picture out of Kerouac's postcards from the edge, the middle and the bottom of his nomadic experiences knocking around with drifter Neal Cassady; his young wife, LuAnne Henderson, hungry for whatever's around the bend; the dubious but colorful mentor William S. Burroughs; the poet and provocateur Allen Ginsberg; and other strays at odds with post-World War II America. (If only Freddie Quell of "The Master" had visited some of the same jazz clubs as these folks, his story would've turned out very differently.)
At one point Francis Ford Coppola urged Jean-Luc Godard to take on "On the Road." Other directors, including Gus Van Sant, came and went. And now, executive-produced by Coppola and produced with his son, Roman Coppola, we have a film version that has undergone its own permutations since premiering in May at the Cannes Film Festival, a film made by "Motorcycle Diaries" director Walter Salles.
Can an adaptation of an iconic yet allegedly unfilmable novel yield a failure and a success in one? I think so. Salles' answer to Kerouac's material, shaped by "Motorcycle Diaries" screenwriter and playwright Jose Rivera, is faithful, which is neither a virtue or a vice. It's long on atmosphere, alert to the shifting dynamics of the characters Kerouac created out of those he knew.
It's even longer on a creamy romantic vision of these careless, thoughtless, thoughtful romantics, running in circles in a circular story about people who never find what they seek. Kerouac called that one, back in '48. Often gorgeous, Salles' "On the Road" doesn't really work in dramatic terms. And yet it's worth seeing, to see how close — and, in flashes, how persuasively evocative — the director and his actors come to capturing the lightning in the bottle.
Sam Riley of "Control" plays the narrator, the Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise. Garrett Hedlund is the Cassady character, the Dionysian Dean Moriarty, whose squeeze LuAnne is played by Kristen Stewart. It's not a competition, I know, but she's the strongest and truest of the three, and this is probably her best screen work to date. Stewart and her fellow "On the Road" performer Kirsten Dunst (who plays the long-suffering mother of Cassady's children) were first approached by Salles for this project years ago, before the publicity-shy Stewart was even in theaters with her first "Twilight."
The most effective scene in "On the Road" stood out in the original, somewhat longer Cannes festival cut and remains the standout in the current, shorter version. It's New Year's Eve, 1949, and Stewart's and Hedlund's characters are bebopping like fiends on a makeshift dance floor to Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" in a New York City apartment. Here, atmosphere feeds character, and vice versa, and the party really does look like the greatest place to be at the midpoint of the 20th century. Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier revel in the smoke, the heat and the blur of movement. They shot "On the Road" all over the place, in Canada, Argentina, Mexico and the U.S. But it's this cramped interior sequence that really sticks.
Riley has the leading role, and he's pretty good (though the English actor's American dialect for Sal is a little insistent). These observational characters, however, tend to voice-over a lot, and while it's the logical way to go with a book written from this character's perspective, Sal never springs to life. What's missing from the script, chiefly, is a kind of toughness. It's a lovely film in many ways. It's also soft. And half the time, approximately, Salles' brand of romanticism works.
Contrary to the general notion that you fall in love with Kerouac's "On the Road" at a young age or not at all, I tried, twice, to enter the novel, once in my teens, again in my early 20s, and couldn't get the hang of it. I had all the squaresville reactions: Too messy, too indulgent, too repetitive. Then I read it a year ago, in preparation for the world premiere of the film, and the insane momentum of the thing worked for me. I wish the film had more of it: The current, abridged cut plays like a highlights reel, without much breathing room between refills and reckonings. But Salles and his actors, particularly Stewart, find a kind of fluid motion and freedom that periodically makes "On the Road" make sense and makes it feel alive. Amy Adams, Terrence Howard and others come and go as various characters encountered on that road, along with Viggo Mortensen as the Burroughs-derived guru with the guns and the rather loose notion of parenting. He's very funny; the film, to a fault, is essentially dead serious.
Call it a successful failure. Some movies worth seeing are like that.
'On the Road' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong sexual content, some drug use and language)
Running time: 2:03
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