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December 01, 2012

On the Road

On the RoadFrom Paper to Celluloid —  
Kerouac’s Journeys Finally Hit Movie Screens

Enough time has passed since Jack Kerouac shocked American literary culture with his free-verse writings that few audiences will fault the film version of “On the Road” for its miscasting of Sam Riley (as Kerouac’s alter-ego character Sal Paradise). Looking nothing like Jack Kerouac and carrying none of the New Englander’s bulky physical bearing doesn’t prevent the talented Riley from giving an empathetic, if shy, portrayal of the Beat Generation icon. Riley’s carefully honed chameleon-like acting skills more than compensate for any obvious discrepancies. He conjures mood and atmosphere like a master magician.

As with the source material, “On the Road” is primarily about Dean Moriarty — a character based on Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s high-spirited bisexual best friend. Here the film plays its ace. Garrett Hedlund depicts Cassady’s untamed nature with an intoxicating ease of conviction and infectious charm. Hedlund is the movie just as Cassady is the book. His all-embracing lust for life drives the story like a whirling dervish exploding with inescapable romantic energy.
This 1947-set period piece captures a repressive time in American history, when a few rebellious young writers threw themselves into a transgressive fit of artistic exploration based on how they lived their day-to-day existence. Cigarettes, booze, pot, and music enable the ride. Bubbling with the jazz rhythms of the time, the film commendably transcends the hedonistic ethos of the Beat Generation that later fueled the hippie movement of the ‘60s, and ironically, if sarcastically, the punk movement of the ‘70s. The movie embraces its colorful characters’ sexual adventures as part and parcel of their rebellious personalities. Present too is the lyrical poetry they created. The filmmakers strike a delicate balance between using just the right amount of voice-over narration and dialogue-readings of carefully crafted verse.

Amy Adams, Kristen Stewart, and Kirsten Dunst add a lot in their respective supporting roles as female objects of sensual desire. There’s a feeling of liberation up on the screen — a kind of freedom that seems unavailable to many of us in the 21st century. We’re talking pure, uncut, human expression of passion on a human level.

Frances Coppola bought the film rights to “On the Road” in 1979. Endless attempts at nailing down a filmable screenplay ended in failure until Coppola was won over by Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” in 2004. Coppola became convinced that the Brazilian filmmaker was up to the tricky challenges of the piece with its jazz-inspired prose and detailed narrative structure. Working with his right-hand screenwriter Jose Rivera, Salles tackled the assignment with due respect to Kerouac’s original manuscript, which Kerouac famously wrote over a three-week period as one long paragraph on a 120-foot roll of paper. Salles went so far as to make a documentary — called “Searching for On the Road” ‘ in which he took a road trip similar to one of the continental crossings Kerouac documented in his book.

“Cool” has become a dirty word in a modern American youth culture that puts a premium on exhibiting a compliant “nice” demeanor. No one wants to recognize the beauty of an unbridled expression of soul — something that the Beats revered above all else.

Salles’s movie is a cause for celebration — the kind where everyone in attendance puts down their inhibitions and acts with immediacy and integrity. You don’t get that from many movies.

Rated R. 124 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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