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In On the Road, Kerouac's classic becomes a fraud

Two sacred texts of the '50s proto-counterculture have escaped the rapacious machine of cinema adaptation for a half-century. One is J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, which probably only would have worked starring Salinger himself, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, that ecstatic recount of crossings and recrossings of North America undertaken in the late 1940s by Kerouac and his muse, Neal Cassady (or "Dean Moriarty," in the book), an honest-to-God Western tramp, fresh out of the reformatory with a vengeful hard-on.

Watching Bob Dylan recite Kerouac's "...the only people for me are the mad ones" run from memory in Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home tells you everything of On the Road's scriptural status with his generation. Forty years Mr. Dylan's junior, I first read that passage in a question on the SAT Verbals section. Most recently, Katy Perry has cited it as the inspiration for her single "Firework."

So, On the Road has lost much of its secret-society thrill, making it the inevitable screen adaptation's job to resuscitate. And now Kerouac's Discover America story has been filmed, written for the screen by Puerto Rican José Rivera, directed by Brazilian Walter Salles — his Motorcycle Diaries cohort — and made with an Englishman, Sam Riley, as Kerouac alter ego Sal Paradise. This perspective is not necessarily a disadvantage, for Kerouac, a Northeasterner of French-Canadian stock — we see him speaking Quebecois to his mother at the Ozone Park, Queens, apartment they share — self-identifies as an awed outsider, hanging on to cowboy Cassady and black jazz musicians to submerge himself into the enigma of America.

Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund star in On the Road.
IFC Films
Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund star in On the Road.

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Directed by Walter Salles. Written by Jose Rivera. Based on the novel by Jack Kerouac. Starring Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge and Viggo Mortensen.

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Riley doesn't seem like he would have landed Kerouac's football scholarship. But beefy blonde Garrett Hedlund, as Dean, has a swinging-dick panther prowl and gives off something of Moriarty's itchy go-go compulsion — though he more often suggests Levi's-ad Americana than a wired dude you'd find hanging around a Greyhound station at 2 a.m. A feeling of reckless chance is difficult to achieve on a $25 million period piece, for the vintage sedans must be acquisitioned, and the signs must be hung on the streets in New York and San Francisco and then shot from just the right angle. The filmmaker's solution is to give more attention to polymorphous bedroom and back-seat experimentation than to exploration of the landscape. Playing Dean's on-again off-again jailbait nympho wife, Mary Lou, Kristen Stewart's existential screen presence is a boon; Viggo Mortensen also shows up as "Bull Lee" — code name of William S. Burroughs — doing what seems like a long-honed party-trick impersonation of Burroughs's adenoidal drawl.

Salles's On the Road does build to a certain rueful poignancy. The film ends with a last, guilty meeting, Paradise's fortunes beginning to rise as Moriarty's fall; he's a burnt-out firework, precisely because he has put into practice the irresponsible, footloose philosophy that Paradise is making an artistic commodity. Here is one glimmer of truth in what is otherwise a deliberately unfinished fraud — another "primitive" post-war antique repurposed for boutique sale.

 
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7 comments
Bob Diccicco
Bob Diccicco

Pretty tough review...fraud. I've been waiting 45 years to see this film. I'm ready.

jmpmk2
jmpmk2

Strangely enough, I saw this last night and came away with the impression that it was filmed about as well as it could have.  Yeah, my first thought, too, was that the dude playing Paradise didn't have me convinced -- tried too hard with the vocal inflections, and didn't exude Kerouac's confident social personality.  However, I didn't feel it was much of a distraction overall.  I just accepted the interpretation of the character and went with it. 

The pacing of the movie accurately represented the book, the scenery was great, and the auxiliary characters were all spot-on (surprised at how close they matched my own imagination).  Though, I was probably most impressed at how the screenwriter took subtle themes from the text and highlighted them to create a more interesting story arc.

I just don't envy trying to turn a book, not known for a remarkable plot, but its extraordinary writing style, into a feature film.  Considering that, I say they did it about as well as possible.  I wasn't disappointed.

Vaughn Barnett
Vaughn Barnett

pretty great movie. Direct adaptation? meh...plus, he has like 3 books that are better IMO. Go ahead and make "Big Sur" as a sequel, where alcoholism actually breaks him down.

Charlie Solus
Charlie Solus

As an adaptation, the film has some serious flaws, but it still has a lot of heart in it; hardly a fraud.

Andrew Hemeren DinosaurKuharevicz
Andrew Hemeren DinosaurKuharevicz

it's not that bad. I have opinions. But what's the point. A book of words, about living... words, and the movie does a pretty damn good job at, something...

Katie Varney
Katie Varney

I saw it a few months ago and it is surprisingly really, really great. On The Road has been one of my favorite novels since I was a teen and like pretty much everyone else - I was upset to hear it was going to be made. However, I loved this film.

Susanna Speier
Susanna Speier

nope. isn't there a local screening event type thing coming up so everyone can wail and moan in discontented ensemble?

 

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