On the Road
I’m not quite sure how to judge “On the Road.” If it existed on its own as a film, separated from any notion of the seminal Jack Kerouac book, I’d probably dismiss it as rambling and unfocused. But since the Bible of the Beats is defined by its poetic embrace of chaos — both in life and literary endeavors — to knock it for its quivery plot would be like criticizing a flamingo for being too pink.
Brazilian director Walter Salles and Puerto Rican screenwriter Jose Rivera previously teamed up for “The Motorcycle Diaries,” a similar project about young men rambling about the countryside looking for themselves, also based on a book by a person of note (in that case, revolutionary Che Guevara). Since “On the Road” has generally been regarded as unfilmable, perhaps it required a foreign perspective to adequately capture the peculiar rhythms of this quintessential, quirky American tale.
Certainly “On the Road” has verve and gutso. In chronicling the on-again, off-again travels of Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and his best friend/muse Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) during the late 1940s, the actors and filmmakers have probably made as good a translation of the book as possible.
It’s a booze-soaked, drug-riddled, sex-filled escapade with no real point other than casting off whatever yokes chain them and seeing what’s out there. It captures the pure exhilaration of freedom for its own sake.
Some portions of Kerouac’s narrative are skimmed over or eliminated, while others are pumped up — particularly those involving Dean’s teenage wife (soon to be ex-wife) Marylou, played by “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart. Stewart has a vibrant, erotic presence as a wanton girl who enjoys her escapades with Dean — including three-ways in bed with some of his friends — even as she knows it must all come to a crashing end, with her grasping the stick’s short end.
One scene, where Marylou and Dean are shaking it to a raucous jazz song as others look on, is scorching hot. Stewart’s small but steamy role should do much to banish her adolescent image.
Much of the heart of the book dealt with Sal idolizing Dean as a sort of vagabond holy man, a con artist and liar who nonetheless embraced the concept of living in the moment, and inspired others to do the same. Dean is a car thief, treats women as disposable objects and leeches off his friends, but others are drawn to his audacious individuality.
Hedlund is terrific as Dean, the distilled essence of American manhood, especially his use of his voice to command and compel those around him. Riley is also good in the less showy role of the introspective writer and chronicler of the group. Tom Sturridge has an abbreviated but effective turn as Carlo Marx, a self-destructive poet who struggles with his homoerotic fixation toward Dean, which Dean uses to tease and taunt.
Viggo Mortensen turns up as Old Bull Lee, an older writer and heroin addict who acts as a mentor and father figure to Sal. It’s notable that he is the one person who is instinctively disdainful of Dean’s flights of fancy, recognizing them as more narcissism than revelation.
Kirsten Dunst plays Camille, Dean’s much put-upon second wife; Amy Adams is Lee’s mentally fractured wife; Alice Braga is an itinerant love of Sal’s; and Elisabeth Moss and Danny Morgan play a recently married couple sundered by Dean’s need to always be on the move.
Kerouac lovers probably know that the book “On the Road” was written in long, frenetic sessions using rolls of paper so he wouldn’t have to stop typing. The movie erratically but vividly captures that freewheeling sense of losing oneself — in the act of creation, or consumption, and even self-destruction.