'On the Road': Nostalgic ride hits some potholes
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Whenever a literary work is adapted for the screen, the time when the original was written and the time in which the work is being adapted both inescapably imprint the resultant movie. The fact that Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" was made into a movie in 1939 was as much a determinant of its content as the firm hand David O. Selznick applied to its making.
When Jack Kerouac's semi-autobiographical novel "On the Road" was published in the late 1950s, it turned him into a literary sensation. Like a number of his friends, who later became known as Beat Generation writers, Kerouac had multidisciplinary artistic interests/ambitions, and he was the first person who aspired to make "On the Road" into a movie. His pitch had him playing its narrator and author stand-in, Sal Paradise, while the role of Dean Moriarty, the sublimely reckless and irresponsible adventurer and companion who became Kerouac/Paradise's muse (a character based on real-life poetic rogue Neal Cassady) would go to Marlon Brando, and they would shoot the film on the fly, during an actual road trip.
Well, that didn't work out, and neither did subsequent attempts to make the film. The America that Kerouac depicted, the vast post-World War II land of both great despair and great opportunity (of all kinds) is a very different country today, and the idea of just hopping into a car and driving from New York to New Orleans or some other relatively far-flung place seems like the stuff of dreams. And Kerouac and his friends -- Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs among them -- are no longer literary outlaws but largely lionized (particularly by other aspiring artists) American legends.
Hence, the finally realized film version of "On the Road," directed by Brazil-born filmmaker Walter Salles and produced in part by Francis Ford Coppola, is a movie that is in a sense as much a movie about the book as it is a movie adapted from it. It is slightly disconcerting from the movie's first frames to see its young cast, featuring familiar faces like those of Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart, and slightly less familiar but still contemporary-looking actors Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley, trying on the mantle of jazz-bopping, poetry-reading, free-loving U.S. cool, trying to incarnate a generation whose dreams and possibilities were painfully apart from the current zeitgeist despite the fact that said zeitgeist couldn't exist without that idea.
Sal (Riley) is an introspective, moody fellow still living with his mom. He longs to write but lacks a theme. Into his life comes wild boy Dean (Hedlund), who has a free-spirited teen girlfriend (Stewart), good weed, and much passion for music, conversation and free interaction with pretty much anybody whose path he crosses. And, of course, an almost compulsive wanderlust. At any moment he'll inveigle Sal to join him in a drive, and the movie chronicles journeys below the Mason-Dixon line, into the pool halls of Denver, the jazz clubs of San Francisco, even a brothel in Mexico. As Sal watches Dean marry another woman (Dunst) while still keeping his teen consort at arm's length, and witnesses Dean's flirtation with mutual friend Carlo Marx (the character based on Ginsberg) and empathizes with Dean's fear of ending up like his own "lost" father, more intimate considerations on the theme of love intertwine with the multi-location spectacle the depiction of their travels becomes. There's a lot of poignancy and iconoclasm, particularly in the New Orleans visit to "Bull" Lee, the ornery, junked-out stand-in for Burroughs, played with exemplary near-nodding-out crustiness by Viggo Mortensen (his wife, Jane, is played by a relatively disheveled Amy Adams, giving her second "upending my perkiness" performance of 2012). There's also a kind of inescapable self-consciousness, too, a sense that we're not experiencing these characters so much as individual archetypes embodied by new icons, and I suspect that sense would be intuited even by a viewer who had no idea who Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs were.
This, and a certain lack of what one could call narrative thrust, makes "On
the Road" a strange, diffuse experience, offering occasional glimpses of genuine
beauty (the varied and gorgeous locations are beautifully shot by Eric Gautier)
and mercurial insight but finally failing to grasp Kerouac's overarching vision.
(Truth to tell, there are more than a few lovers of America and American
literature who are of the opinion that Kerouac himself didn't grasp his
overarching vision.) Some of the fault for this may be laid at the feet of
Hedlund, who, capable a performer as he is, simply doesn't have the kind of
charisma that would compel you to follow his character anywhere despite all the
times he's left you in the lurch. While some of the elusiveness here may be part
of the point, Dean Moriarty needs to be a force of nature.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.