On the Road
Opens Friday (see times below)
It's said that God protects drunks, fools and little children. If so, He must have been working overtime during Jack Kerouac's prime rambling days, at least as depicted in On the Road, the new film adaptation of Kerouac's most famous book.
A scattered but earnest transposition of the novel, On the Road stars British actor Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, our hero and Kerouac's literary alter ego. Garrett Hedlund (Tron) plays Sal's best friend Dean Moriarty — Neal Cassady in real life — the alpha libertine who spent his days drunk on life. And liquor. And pot and bennies and whatever else he could get his hands on.
For the first two-thirds of the film, Sal and Dean carom around with a rotating cast of beatnik acquaintances, drinking their way through jazz clubs and speakeasies and some truly alarming road trips. Those drunk driving sequences are particularly harrowing as the boys barrel across America in a two-ton Hudson.
Director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) uses this imagery quite deliberately, I think. It suggests the manner in which our protagonists recklessly endanger themselves and everyone around them in a headlong rush for kicks and glory. As the film proceeds, a growing sense of dread builds. Even Dean pauses at one point to let his gaze linger on an old wino in the train yard. This lifestyle isn't sustainable.
The fellas have some adventures and epiphanies along the way, to be sure. Sal spends a season as a field hand and enjoys a brief love affair with a migrant worker, played by the terrific Brazilian actress Alice Braga. (When is someone going to give her a leading role?) Dean gets married — a couple of times, actually. And their pal Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge, in the role based on Allen Ginsberg) finds time to write era-defining American poetry.
Kristen Stewart plays the fourth key member of the gang as Marylou, Dean's main squeeze. After so many years moping through those vampire movies, Stewart actually shows up for this film and carries many of its most emotionally loaded scenes. You can read in her eyes her hopeless love for Dean, and also the sad resignation that he will never, ever come through for her.
Dean is everyone's biggest problem, it seems — including the film's. The character of Dean Moriarty looms large in annals of American literature. In the book, he is a character of incandescent charisma, a holy maniac mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved and desirous of everything at the same time.
In the film, unfortunately, he is played by Garrett Hedlund, who looks and acts like a Hanes t-shirt model. Hedlund has one effective scene, near the end, when the inevitable downward spiral kicks in. But for the most part, Hedlund fails to provide the raw wattage that the role demands. It's really not his fault — this isn't a performance issue so much as a casting mistake.
Riley is all right as our narrator and protagonist, Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac. But wow, does that guy look like a young Leo DiCaprio. Viggo Mortensen puts in a playful turn as Bull Lee/William Burroughs, and Elisabeth Moss completely steals her scenes as a jilted bride forced to deal with all these beatnik hipster assholes.
All the movie's best scenes, fittingly, are on the road. Salles strings together a melancholy parade of dusty highways and interstate buses and railroad trestles. The interior scenes are all about either sex (everyone here gets naked, a lot) or, heaven help us, literature. I'm sorry, but no matter how august the company, watching drunk 20-somethings reading drunk 20-something poetry is excruciating.
On the Road ends nicely, with a bleary sequence in Mexico and a bitter little coda. It's a satisfying enough film, but there's a lingering feeling that it never quite manages what it's aiming for. As a long-anticipated film adaptation of a very famous book, On the Road could have been a little better. But it could have been a lot worse.