On the Road-attachment0

On the Road

Movie Information

The Story: Film version of Jack Kerouac's autobiographical novel. The Lowdown: It looks good, it's solidly produced and it offers a reasonable approximation of the book, but it's never very exciting, nor does it dig very deeply.
Score:

Genre: Quasi-biographical Drama
Director: Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries)
Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Alice Braga, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen
Rated: R

Released, pulled out of release and now released again, Walter Salles’ film of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road finally makes it to town and (like the other Salles films I’ve seen) seems more taxidermied than adapted. Not that it’s a bad movie — rather, it’s a strangely inert one. Considering the source material — not to mention all the naked (albeit rather coyly naked) flesh and gyrating bodies — that’s almost some kind of accomplishment. It takes a particular sensibility to make the material here ultimately…well, dull, but Salles pulls it off as if it’s second nature. Maybe it is. The last time he and screenwriter Jose Rivera got together, the result was The Motorcycle Diaries — a similarly well-intentioned, nice-looking picture that lacked excitement. I’m inclined to think that both films suffer from an overdose of reverence — which is perhaps not the best way to capture irreverent stories or characters.

Assuming that there are readers who don’t know, I’ll explain that On the Road is a more or less autobiographical book about Kerouac and his circle that uses aliases for the names (this seems to have been at the insistence of the publishers). What it amounts to is a kind of wandering narrative of two men — Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund) — as they wander post-World War II America in search of meaning — and in search of themselves. It is essentially the cornerstone of the Beat movement, which I admit is not something I’m all that in tune with except as that era’s counterculture. The thing is that Salles’ film does nothing much to pull me into the era. Instead of making me feel the sense of alienation, the sense of exploration, the dizzy raptures of sex, drugs and a cool jazz-infused society in a world otherwise in the grips of conformity, I merely got the feeling of dispassionate reportage. Worse, it feels bloodless, lifeless — even textbookish. There’s not even a hint of exhilarating madness.

If the film had amended the book in such a way that it centered on Kerouac writing the book itself, it could have been a brilliant approach — rather like the way David Cronenberg turned William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch into a film more about writing Naked Lunch than an adaptation of the book. But here the ending incorporating him writing the book is just window dressing. If ever a book deserved a film that delves into the subtext of the characters, this is it — and that’s exactly what we don’t get. Instead, we get a visually appealing, satisfactorily acted, reasonably solid approximation of the book. It’s fine for what it is, but I don’t think I should have ended up wondering if Salles and screenwriter Rivera ever stopped to think about what all of this meant. Rated R for strong sexual content, drug use and language.

Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

12 thoughts on “On the Road

  1. Bokb

    That’s really sad to hear.
    I didn’t even know someone was turning it into a book until a few months ago, and hoping it was Gilliam…. ah well.
    Hopefully, and likely, somebody else will take a stab at it!

  2. Ken Hanke

    Whatever this movie is or isn’t, it’s not anything like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas if that’s what you were hoping. Come to think of it, it’s not like any Gilliam picture.

  3. Xanadon't

    I think it would’ve been strange for someone who has renounced his U.S. citizenship to head a project dealing with a uniquely U.S. movement. But then… maybe his reasons for leaving in the first place would’ve lent the film an interesting energy that it is said to lack.

    • DrSerizawa

      No shock there. There are several Hollywood types who refuse to live in the USA but have no problem with coming back once in a while to stuff their pockets with cash. Someone less charitable would call them hypocrites.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Well, it’s wholly reasonable for Gilliam to have become a British citizen, since he’s lived there for over 40 years and done most of his movies there.

  5. Big Al

    “Someone less charitable would call them hypocrites.”

    It is my understanding that high-earners get taxed much more harshly in the UK than in the US, so if $ were the issue, he would have stayed here.

    As for the film in question, can anyone offer an example of when a crappy book (which “On the Road” was) has been made into a good film?

  6. Ken Hanke

    It is my understanding that high-earners get taxed much more harshly in the UK than in the US, so if $ were the issue, he would have stayed here.

    You are correct (though there are ways of minimizing the bite for work done outside the UK). I suspect it’s just a matter that his entire career has been based in GB.

    As for the film in question, can anyone offer an example of when a crappy book (which “On the Road” was) has been made into a good film?

    Well, the book Falling Angel is pretty bad and was made in Angel Heart, which I like a lot. The thing with this is I’m too young to be in tune with the whole Beat thing (you’re even further removed) so I’m not keen enough on the topic to be predisposed to the movie.

  7. Big Al

    “I suspect it’s just a matter that his entire career has been based in GB.”

    No political objections? (I thought I heard that somewhere).

    “Well, the book Falling Angel is pretty bad and was made in Angel Heart, which I like a lot.”

    Good example. I was not aware of the book.

    “The thing with this is I’m too young to be in tune with the whole Beat thing (you’re even further removed)…”

    I think I’m younger than you think I am.

    My knowledge of the beat generation is purely anecdotal, I just know the book “On the Road” (what little I could stomach before throwing it away) stunk, and if it resonated with the post-WW2 generation, then America must have been pretty damn bored with itself.

  8. Big Al

    Scratch that next to last bit, I just realized you were saying that I am younger, and thus further removed from the beat phenomenon, than you. Sorry for the confusion.

  9. Ken Hanke

    No political objections? (I thought I heard that somewhere).

    I’m not saying there weren’t, but I don’t know.

    Good example. I was not aware of the book.

    The book is a huge disappointment if you come to it as a fan of the movie, which I did. Among other things, the whole New Orleans aspect of the movie was Alan Parker’s invention. The book never leaves NY and it’s all kind of…mundane.

  10. Me

    Having only read probably the first couple chapters in high school i was expected to hate Dean Moriarty so much. Maybe its just this film’s portrayal of him but i don’t see why all the beats were in love with Neal Cassidy.

    Is there record of him and William Burroughs not getting along?

  11. Ken Hanke

    I don’t entirely understand that first bit, but I suspect the answer to your question about why the Beats were so crazy about him is that he was pretty and he was dangerous.

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