“On the Road” Goes Off the Beatnik Path

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Published on December 18th, 2012 | by Alexandra Marvar


“On the Road” opens on December 21 at IFC Center.

Running time: 124 minutes; Rated R.

In this screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” one particular theme blazes forth: the charm of psychopathic irresponsibility.

This film is not loveable. But director Walter Salles shoudn’t be held responsible. Imagine the great challenge of adapting a book that’s largely stream-of-consciousness (in Truman Capote’s immortal critique, “That’s not writing. It’s typing”) to feature-film format without ending up with a mish-mash of flickering film moments only loosely ordered by chronology.

Owing largely to the obstacle of un-adaptability, a film rendition of “On the Road” has been stewing in the common cinematic subconscious since it was written, and never came to fruition until the present. In 1957, Kerouac penned a letter to Marlon Brando suggesting that he play Dean Moriarty to Kerouac’s Sal Paradise. That didn’t pan out. Twenty-two years later, when Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights, he ran through a series of screenwriters before attempting his own draft with help from his son Roman and eventually giving up on account of the difficultly of achieving enough of a period feel. Years later, in the ‘90s, he revived the project and had Ethan Hawke (Sal) and Brad Pitt (Dean) slated for an attempt that would also fail. Then, in 2001, he was set to cast Billy Crudup (Sal) and Colin Farrell (Dean), with Russell Banks to write the screenplay and Joel Schumacher to direct. Fail. Ultimately, after seeing “The Motorcycle Diaries,” he decided to bring Salles on board. What came about is a seemingly interminable road trip through an excessively romantic portrayal of beatnik wanderlust. The characters are too young and beautiful (save for Kirsten Dunst, as Camille, who effectively comes across as aging and desperate), their apartments too cush, their lives too easy, and their visages far too contemporary to sense from this loose story the original grit of Kerouac, Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Dean Moriarty), Allen Ginsberg, and their cohort of rapscallion intellectuals.

And thinking back on all those past potential casts, all seem more destined for sincerity as Kerouac’s characters than the present line-up of Hollywood kids. Here, Dean Moriarty is played by Garrett Hedlund, with his undeniably DiCaprio eyes and his gravelly Christian-Bale-as-Batman whisper of a voice. His cool seems forced. (Perhaps that was Sal’s point all along?) But beyond any individual performance falling short of believable, the film’s failure is in its inability to seem genuinely period, and consequently, its inability to engage. Maybe it’s the overflow of out-of-place beauty and simplicity that hinders any semblance of necessary struggle and makes the whole thing seem so phony. Is it modern Brooklyn’s fault? Without that point of actual bourgeois-bohemian Brooklyn cultural reference, the character depictions—attire, attitude, general ambiance—could have seemed far less familiar and therefore more genuinely of another era.

Regardless, in Salles’s “On the Road,” hardship seems novel, no one seems broke, and these infamous literary icons look like NYU students. It gives pop culture nothing that Kerouac’s book doesn’t provide more directly—aside from the visual of Kristen Stewart (Marylou) giving handjobs to two men at once in the front seat of a classic car speeding down some southern highway. Of course, who doesn’t want to see that?

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About the Author

is a writer based in New York.

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