‘The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old ...’ Jack Kerouac
On the Road
Even now, to read that on the page is to feel something of the raw jolt – the pulsing, electric, speed-freak energy – of Kerouac’s Beat prose. Yet to hear it, or versions thereof, coming out of an actor’s mouth is a whole other kettle of Benzedrine. Turns out the book is unadaptable. Kerouac himself thought otherwise (he wanted Brando in the film version), but Kerouac was wrong. Ironically, a novel that’s a paean to unbridled freedom is a prisoner of its own medium and a slave to its intrinsic rhythms. Sorry, On the Road just doesn’t travel well.
Director Walter Salles, who knows a thing or two about picaresque journeys – in The MotorcycleDiaries, even in Central Station – does make an honest effort here.
Yet it’s soon obvious that his film is everything the book isn’t – notably, faithful and earnest. So a pretty cast teams with the pretty cinematography on an episodic ramble that comes to seem pretty pointless. En route, there are a few hot spots to savour – a sultry imbroglio, a jazzy fandango, a simmering cameo – but too much of the rest is rather tepid, a trip that just isn’t trippy enough.
Part of the problem is the principal casting. Of course, Dean Moriarty – the roman a clef’s version of Neal Cassady – is the spark plug of the piece, the wild lover of life and drugs and women and sometimes men and always the beckoning spaces of the open road. He’s the tiger in the tank, but Garrett Hedlund, all fresh-faced boyishness, robs him of his claws. Gone is the guy’s danger, and with it any credible depiction of the hard toll that unharnessed freedom inevitably exacts.
Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, hardly fares better at the hands of Sam Riley. As the gang drives across post-war America, from New York though the Midwest to Salinas to ‘Frisco to New Orleans and back, Riley reduces Sal to little more than the court stenographer, just along for the ride to soak up the writerly juice. Now and then, on cue, we see him scribbling the notes that would eventually make their way onto the novel’s famously long scroll, but it’s a gimmicky sight that seems only to validate Truman Capote’s bitchy put-down of Kerouac: “That’s not writing, it’s typewriting.”
Strangely, the women, who tend to be treated as excess baggage in the book, come out swinging on screen, especially Kristen Stewart and her naked (often literally) approach to Marylou. Whether gyrating to Salt Peanuts, puffing on a reefer or triangulating a threesome on the Ford’s front seat, Stewart gives her the rough poetry that Dean should have but lacks. In fact, there’s so much fatale in her femme that it blurs the ostensible focus on the men, and threatens to throw the movie’s balance out of whack. Hey, forget Jack, I want to read her novel.
Of those men, all the Beat icons, only Viggo Mortensen’s William Burroughs makes a strong impression, albeit only fleetingly in a brief cameo. Unlike the others, Burroughs is a stay-at-home fellow at this point, but what a home (a crumbling abode in the Louisiana bayou) and what a fellow (by turns brilliantly incisive and demonstrably unhinged). Again, the balance inadvertently shifts – we’d rather forego the highway to stick with William and his William Tell act.
Elsewhere, Kirsten Dunst is given the impossible role of Dean’s hectoring wife, a drudge with the off-Beat idea that a father should actually take some responsibility for his children. Nevertheless, we have good reason to thank her when, among all the surrogates on this forgettable journey, she becomes ours with this pithy remark: “No more road for me.” Dig it, man.