Portrait of the artist as a fast typist: Between trips around the U.S. as a day laborer and hobo-vivant, a budding writer with the cool pimp name of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) sits in his mother’s apartment in Queens, N.Y., and speed-dreams a novel about friends he would make famous — the poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), the junkie novelist Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) and, indelibly, the drifter-hustler Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Having admiringly, enviously watched Dean spill his reckless charisma across the continent like free beer, Sal pours it all into a novel that would be both a hagiograohy of Moriarty and an exploitation of his exploits. Dean had wanted Sal to teach him how to write; instead, Sal put this Most Unforgettable Character into a book and called it On the Road.
A juiced-up biographical novel recounting the friendship that Jack Kerouac (aka Sal Paradise) and his literary pals Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and William S. Burroughs (Bull Lee) kindled in the late ’40s with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty), On the Road was the publishing sensation of 1957. It announced the arrival of the Beat Generation, an anarcho-Buddhist response to the buttoned-down somnolence of the same decade’s Silent Generation. In his tribute to “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles,” Kerouac blared a siren call to youth in a decade of finicky, middle-aged novelists. “With his barbaric yawp of a book,” a TIME critic wrote, “Kerouac commands attention as a kind of literary James Dean.”
(READ: our 1957 review of On the Road by subscribing to TIME)
Like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita — the other supreme American road novel of the ’50s — the Kerouac book was a controversial best-seller that Hollywood deemed unfilmable. Just after publication, Kerouac tried and failed to get Marlon Brando interested; two decades later, Francis Ford Coppola optioned the novel but gave up. The roadblock was less the characters’ sexual and pharmacological excesses than the wandering story. Sal goes on cross-country trips, sometimes with Dean Moriarty, and comes home, again and again. The picaresque structure could work in novels, like Huckleberry Finn, but movies of the time demanded the freight train of narrative. In this later, equally timid time, they mostly still do.
Walter Salles’ adaptation, which opens Friday in a cut 15 mins. shorter than the version that premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, is probably as decent an approximation of the book as a conventional movie can achieve. The Brazilian director assembled an attractive cast — everybody looks great — beginning with Garrett Hedlund of Friday Night Lights as Dean and The Twilight Saga’s Kristen Stewart as Dean’s teen wife Marylou. As Sam, rising British light Sam Riley (Brighton Rock) receives glamorous support from the likes of Mortensen, Sturridge, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss and Steve Buscemi. Using the the novel’s itinerary as a literary Baedeker, Salles filmed in nine states across four time zones, and in Canada, Mexico and Argentina. The movie’s visual texture is both acute and evocative, a vision of postwar America as it might have looked on its sexiest day. Moment to moment, in perhaps half of its teeming vignettes, On the Road is alive.
(READ: Corliss’s review from Cannes of the original On the Road cut)
Still, you will be disappointed if you expect that Salles and his team will find some cinematic equivalent to Kerouac’s “wild-form” storytelling and then serve up a daring hipster hallucination. Instead, this is a careful approximation of the book: if there were an On the Road museum, this could be the elaborate diorama at its center. Though Salles infuses his sound track with the jazz stylings of Charlie Parker and Slim Gaillard, his On the Road lacks the novel’s exuberant syncopation. The movie is like the scrupulous annotation of a wild Parker solo; it misses the beat as well as the Beat.
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“The past is a foreign country,” L.P. Hartley wrote in his novel The Go-Between. “They do things differently there.” And though the hair styles and casual clothes of the postwar decade are worn without irony today, that time is foreign to ours. One big difference was the popular renown of serious artists — so long as their work was buttressed by a legend about its creation. The abstract-expressionist artist Jackson Pollock, for instance, became famous through a Life magazine story detailing his technique of dribbling and squirting paint onto a canvas.
Kerouac’s backstory tapped into an even more appealing myth of the hero. He believed himself seized by a relentless muse, as his biographer Ann Charters wrote, and worried that the moments he spent changing the paper in his typewriter would stanch all orgasmic inspiration. So he trimmed 12-foot-long sheets of tracing paper to fit into the typewriter barrel, then went furiously to work; the clatter of his keys played like the soundtrack of a tap dance marathon. Finding the ordeal so hot that he’d change T-shirts several times a day, he wrote the book in three fevered weeks in April 1951. Six years later, when the book finally reached print, Kerouac was instantly famous — and notorious. Some critics dismissed the conversational tone of the book and mocked the speed of its composition. “That isn’t writing,” Truman Capote said, “it’s typing.”
Reread today, On the Road surprises by how unsurprising it is. A natural talespinner with many strange and entertaining stories in his knapsack, Kerouac packs telling details into every page; he’s a superb observational journalist. His self-portrait shows a young man who sees the outlaw Dean as his ticket to bust out of the conventional life. They don’t hit the road because they’re broke, like the migrant workers and homeless men they encounter, but as an escape from “the squares” — and because, as Sal says in the film, they believe in “the one noble function of the time: move.” They could be traveling salesmen for whom the road is home.
Salles has been on this road before: his 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries charted a trip through South America taken by two friends, one of them the young Che Guevara. That road movie was written by José Rivera, who also scripted On the Road, and who addressed the travels of an aspiring writer in his screenplay for the 2010 weepie Letters to Juliet. Sal and Dean don’t seek political awakening, and their quest is not heroic, as it was for Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee (in yet another masterpiece of road fiction published in the ’50s). But Sal did imagine he was also on a search for spiritual enlightenment: to him, Beat meant beatific.
In the movie, there’s less spirit, more flesh. Sal and Dean try a three-way sex sandwich, with Marylou as the bacon; and on a car trip, where all three are naked, Marylou in the middle uses her hands to satisfy both men simultaneously. (This scene seems shorter in the current version.) For the young men here, the Grail is kicks; they could be frat brothers on an extended spring break. Their journey is about going where chance blows them, finding and discarding women and, when money gets short, stealing from people poorer than they. It’s an adventure with no particular aim or, for that matter, destination.
Condensing the number of trips in the book, and avoiding most of the antique hipster argot that Kerouac loved (“What a crazy cat that was, whoo! Did I dig him!”), the film makes time for a sweet, sexy dance that Dean has with Marylou. That tryst smolders, as Hedlund does throughout the movie; walking around naked, as if constantly posing for a Michelangelo statue that Sal wants to sketch and Carlo to hump, Hedlund is a studlier James Dean, priapic charm incarnate. Dunst is excellent as Dean’s second wife Camille, whom he has abandoned with their two kids; the wages of sin are a bill Dean never expects to pay. In one sense, Dean and Sal and Carlo are conventional American men: the guys talk and smoke and screw around, while the girls scrub the floor and are left to mind the babies.
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Maybe the movie shouldn’t be criticized for seeming long and lurching, when its aim is simply being true to the book’s episodic structure. The viewer is welcome to edit down the stories and focus on certain privileged moments. One is the salty, mid-film encounter in rural Louisiana with the Burroughs character (Mortensen, sporting a froggy voice and sleeping off a heroin jag with an infant in one arm) and his wife (Adams, who’s awarded the movie’s biggest laugh line when she grabs a broom and absents herself from the company by saying, “Excuse me — lizards”). As the vivacious nymphet Marylou, Stewart exudes an expert teen’s sex perfume, and gets more girl-on-man action in her half-hour or so of screen time than Bella Swan enjoyed in the first three Twilight features. The hole in the movie is Riley, who looks so much like Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader that I wanted Sal to alleviate the angst by breaking into a Stefon impression.
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Kerouac’s greatest gift was to transmute the thrill and danger of the vagrant life into prose every bit as intoxicating as the original experience. In one of his early stories, he expanded his joy at hearing a tenor sax player blow “Gator Tail” into a declaration of the pleasure principle: “I like my whiskey wild, I like Saturday night in the shack to be crazy, I like the tenor to be woman-mad, I like things to GO and rock and be flipped, I want to be stoned if I’m going to be stoned at all, I want to be gassed by a back-alley music…” Wouldn’t you want to see a movie whose images and emotions matched that rush of words?
That wish turns to ashes on the long road between two media. The book was a solo hash dream, a one-man literary version of a found-footage assembly, sent special-delivery from Kerouac’s soul to the reader’s mind. But a movie is a machine. Except for the avant-garde output of Stan Brakhage or Bruce Conner, films require more calculation than inspiration, amassing the talents of hundreds to turn the haiku of a screenplay into a product that costs, and is meant to please, millions. The archivist’s meticulousness with which this movie was assembled defeats the starving-hysterical-naked urgency of its source material. Could the old Hollywood pharisees have been right? Maybe On the Road is unfilmable.