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On the Road

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 12, 2013 at 3:05 a.m.


With Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) in the backseat of their voluminous Hudson Hornet, Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) light out for the territory in Walter Salles’ On the Road.

Count Leo Tolstoy lived long enough to see the movies and to predict that they would render literature obsolete. That they did not has at least something to do with the fundamental intimacy of the connection between author and audience the act of reading makes possible. Reading is a kind of telepathy that allows us access to the thoughts of others - when we say that a good writer “engages” us, we are acknowledging the collaborative nature of reading. We cast novels in our head; we supply the magical effects, furnish the sets and do many things that in the movies are done on our behalf.

Though books and movies are ultimately finished in the mind of the consumer, we have much less work to do when we watch movies. And this is both worse and better - if our Jack Reacher is a looming menace of a giant, we might have trouble accepting Tom Cruise in the role. If our On the Road is a barely coherent tightrope act - a fizzy word drunk stand-up speed-rapped by an aspiring poet posing as a dumb saint prole - then it’s tough to take this pretty version, populated by Gap models in retro Americana fashions.

That’s not meant as a criticism so much as an observation - I cannot imagine that anyone might have done a better movie version of On the Road than the one Brazilian director Walter Salles has given us. Salles was chosen for his presumed affinity for road movies, having made the beautiful (but similarly unsatisfying) The Motorcyle Diaries in 2004. That film told the story of an 8,000-mile road trip the young Che Guevara made from Buenos Aires to Peru back in 1952, before he became a T-shirt icon. The most simplistic way to look at On the Road is that it’s the story of how Jack Kerouac (called “Sal Paradise” in the book) fell under the spell of the enigmatic hoodlum/cowboy/holy man Neal Cassady (“Dean Moriarty”) back in 1947, and followed him from Queens to Denver to San Francisco to New Orleans, etc.

The story of how Dean and Sal tore through “the crazy American night,” back and forth across the continent encountering sacred wackos and jazz bums, isn’t what is important about On the Road; it’s just the line that holds the flapping laundry. What matters is the beat and the rhythm and the seemingly effortless lyrical wind of the language, Kerouac’s mad, spontaneous improvisation - the literary equivalent of Charlie Parker blowing out long vowels of pure, freshly made-up honk on his sax or Jackson Pollock dripping and slashing canvases.

Yet the author of The Motorcycle Diaries at least grew up to be Che Guevara, while Kerouac grew up to be a sour Floridian padding around in house slippers and insisting he was never a beatnik, that he was a Catholic. Looking back in dispassion, we might be given to suspect that the whole beat phenomenon - which licensed a lot of undisciplined hedonists to pass themselves off as artists - was more a marketing campaign driven by Allen Ginsberg (“Carlo Marx” here) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti than a serious movement.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh …,” Kerouac famously wrote in On the Road, and that passage is recited in voice-over here by Paradise (British actor Sam Riley). It is a romantic idea, and not quite true - most people cannot afford to be fascinating; they have to live and work and feed their families. Kerouac’s obsession with beautiful losers is in its way as unseemly as Scott Fitzgerald’s canonization of the rich, but it deserves respect.

But maybe not this much respect. Salles’ adaptation is faithful enough to the novel to serve as a study aid even as it exposes the aimlessness (and pointed pointlessness) of the plot. And it’s strangely airless and claustrophobic for a road movie, probably because it’s difficult to re-create the openness of midcentury America on a modest budget.

Reality also precludes casting the young Paul Newman as Moriarty (Kerouac wanted Marlon Brando in the role, opposite himself as Paradise), so Salles settled for the charismatic (if far too clean) Garrett Hedlund. I might have gone for someone even more negligible than Riley as the overawed Paradise.Meanwhile, Kristin Stewart, liberated from her gilded Twilight hutch, once again proves herself an able actress. Viggo Mortensen obviously knows something about William Burroughs, and his “Old Bull Lee” is informed yet not quite parodic. Amy Adams manages to disappear in the film, maybe on purpose, and otherwise the players (including Elizabeth Moss from Mad Men and Steve Buscemi, who turns up in a cameo) seem like they turned up to help out a noble cause.

On the Road is an important book for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with the words that sped through Kerouac’s head; it’s important because it was read by people who thought it mattered deeply to them, who went on to write books and form bands and make movies of their own. It has become part of the American DNA, an artifact that has shaped our idea of where we come from and who we are. It may not be an unfilmable novel (Kerouac certainly didn’t think so), but its prime virtue is its language - a tumult of atomic words knocking about and spitting sparks - rather than the romantic images and scenes they coalesce into. It is an immediate book, that startles in close-up.

But when the camera pulls back to reveal the long horizon, there’s really no there there.

On the Road 81 Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Elizabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi Director: Walter Salles Rating: R for strong sexual content, drug use and language Running time: 124 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 04/12/2013

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