Perhaps if I hadn’t had such high hopes for this film, my disappointment might not be so keen.
On the Road, published in 1957, is American writer Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel of his travels back and forth across the U.S. in the late 1940s with his friend and muse, Neal Cassady. Both Kerouac and Cassady were Catholics and the journeys, while most remembered for drugs, alcohol and the women who joined in their escapades, were really searches for meaning. Post- World War II America, both its rootlessness and its craving for conformity, were the bugaboos of intellectuals like Kerouac and Cassady–and their attempts to find themselves during this time was the ultimate struggle of the Beat, or the prototypical hippie, generation.
It’s kind of amazing that it took 56 years for a film to be made of this novel. (There have been TV versions.) What’s more amazing to me is that the director is from Brazil, Walter Salles, and the screenwriter, Jose Rivera, is from Puerto Rico, and the actor playing Kerouac is from London. Salles and Rivera partnered on another road trip film, Motorcycle Diaries, about the trip that Che Guevera took throughout South America in 1952 that formed his revolutionary ideas. This film was good because it was clearly about the changes that a man goes through from the observations he makes about society. What’s wrong, for me, with the movie On the Road, is that the characters don’t really change, they just get worse. And I rarely got a sense of what America was really like for these guys to rebel against it so much. Perhaps that is because the chief filmmakers did not grow up in the U.S. I don’t know for sure if that is the reason the film seems to lack a definite “Americanness.”
Sol Paradise (Jack Kerouac) is a writer wannabe from a devout French-Canadian family who now lives in New York City. He’s played by Londoner Sam Riley, a nice enough fellow, I’m sure, but he gives the Kerouac character a tepid, hanger-on mentality that makes him very hard to like. Sol’s friend Carlo Marx (the poet Allen Ginsburg, played by another Londoner, good-looking Tom Sturridge) who introduces Sol to his friend (and off and on again lover) Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), played by Minnesota-born Garrett Hedlund, who does indeed capture the good looks and feral charisma of the real-life Cassady. Paradise/Kerouac is immediately taken with Moriarty/Cassady, almost as if he falls in love with him. He is determined to hang around Moriarty, in the hopes the man’s virility will rub off on him. As the Kerouac character says, “I am only interested in the mad ones.”
Cassady, an acknowledged con man, strides through life with a cosmic hard-on, ready for anything or anyone and not caring a whit what damage he leaves behind. I found him to be the quintessential sociopath, a man without conscience, and he’s perfectly described (not by name but by similarities) in an excellent book I just read, The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. I learned more about Cassady from this book than I did from On the Road or any of the other film portrayals of him, such as in Howl (played by James Prescott to James Franco’s wonderful portrayal of Allen Ginsburg).
Criss-crossing back and forth across the country, getting stoned and getting laid might have been a fun story, but in this film, the journeys are really just endless visions of roadways with occasional sex sounds behind closed doors. There’s a lot of sex implied in the movie – many two-somes, a couple three-somes, straight and homosexual, strangers and lovers – but each scene is oddly unsexy. Usually just sounds (a woman’s not a man’s) and the wall being pounded. Pretty boring.
Even more boring than the passionless sex is the way the women are portrayed. They are mistreated, ordered around, shared, and abandoned. Just a real peachy picture of women at that time. Kristen Stewart, in an exciting change from her vampire rompings in the Twilight series, is wonderful as Marylou, the underage bride of Cassady who keeps coming back to him until she finally gives up and marries a sailor. Kristen Dunst plays Cassady’s proper wife, Camille/Catherine, and mother to their two children, who finally throws the bum out. But all the women who are unlucky enough to get involved with the men in this movie are sorely treated. It made me sick.
One saving grace, or should I say three saving graces, of the film are cameos from Terrence Howard (as a jazz musician), Steve Boscemi (as a homosexual who pays Cassady for sex) and Viggo Mortensen, as the enigmatic heroin addict and genius writer William S. Burroughs, (Naked Lunch, 1959), who blithely dismisses Cassady as a man without conscience.
The movie is nicely shot (by Eric Gautier, another member of the creative team on Motorcycle Diaries) and the jazz scenes are worth the price of admission—though as I’d said earlier, no real picture of America at this time was portrayed, so black people in the film are only jazz musicians—there’s no racism apparent anywhere. Un fact, there’s hardly any dramatization of what was wrong with the country at all—it could have been shot anywhere, at any time, for all the import that the historical context was given.
Bottom line: On the Road is a worthy attempt to bring life to a great American novel, but the fire in the belly of the real-life people is missing in the film.