Director Walter Salles’ “On the Road,” opening here Friday, was doomed. There was no way on God’s green and glorious earth that this film was going to please everyone – especially those who have been waiting more than half a century for the film version one of America’s primal road novels.
The longer it took, the more the stories piled up about all the versions that might have been – the version that Kerouac once wanted starring Marlon Brando, the long-planned version that Francis Ford Coppola was going to make (and that he commissioned novelist Russell Banks to write a script for).
Finally, after seeing Salles’ fine Che Guevara movie “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Coppola asked Salles to make it. And Salles, with a script by Jose Rivera, did just that. Salles didn’t worry a whit about the inevitable higher failure of what he was doing.
No film could possibly do justice to “On the Road” any more than any film could truly do justice to those other literary classics delineating what critic Leslie Fiedler memorably called American “Good Bad Boyhood” – J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”
It is, to understate considerably, not common for masterpieces to translate intact from one art form to another – or, in the case of Kerouac’s “On the Road,” a non-masterpiece so influential in the lives of young American males (especially those of literary persuasion) that it might as well be one.
In Kerouac’s 1957 novel of the late-1940s and early-’50s, we finally had its era’s newest American drunken ode to a lost generation and the fervent hope that it would all be so much more important than everyone feared it would wind up.
Its romance – especially for young literary men – became primal in America: that going on the road was the archetypal way to fill up a hitherto callow life with the necessary experience to be a writer (or, failing that, to be merely enlightened, or, for that matter, interesting).
Experience by itself couldn’t make you literary, but on the off chance you were literary already, it could give you something to write about. (Never mind that Stephen Crane wrote “The Red Badge of Courage” without ever being in the Civil War.)
The Beat Generation wasn’t all that large, especially between book covers (only 10 or so readable writers truly qualify), but its influence was enormous.
But there was Kerouac’s pivotal book about the search for “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk,” the ones “who burn like Roman candles across the night.” It helped to give at least a couple of generations of American young people something of a game plan for being young.
And here’s this movie by a talented director who can’t possibly measure up to all those visions of Roman candles burning.
This isn’t even emotion recollected in tranquility, this is post-emotional tranquility turned into history – a wild and funky period piece with actors playing fictional characters based on Kerouac (Sam Riley), Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund), Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) and William S. Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen).
Riley plays the Kerouac figure Sal Paradise with a strange, Eastwoodish husky whisper. Hedlund plays Neal Cassady (who would later show up with Ken Kesey as a merry prankster) with an impressive, offhand narcissism that turns into self-destructive intensity. Mortensen, somewhat incredibly, has almost as much incongruous success playing a character based on the freakishly cadaverous Burroughs as he previously did playing Sigmund Freud for director David Cronenberg.
Ask not, then, for an “On the Road” with a Roman candle burn. Or one that could have even a fraction of the effect of Kerouac’s original vision (until Kerouac proceeded on his inexorable journey to end up a culturally conservative drunk who ended up living with his mother).
Here is a story about young men learning the art of urinating off a moving truck. And falling into bed with women (often the same one – sometimes at the same time).
It’s a story of Benzedrine inhalers crushed to keep one able to write all night. And of pot smoked socially – until in Mexico, one discovers a joint the size of a mammoth politician’s cheroot. And of shoplifting from rural stores across America and doing migrant work next to impossibly beautiful women (whose hair, after a full day’s work in the fields is arranged with near-perfect fetching disarray).
Here is a 1949 Hudson hurtling over highways at illegal speeds, always with a destination in mind but not always with all that much of a reason to go there.
And here is the music of black America that Kerouac was smart enough to love even if he was never smart enough to understand it – the nonsense jive of Slim Gaillard that bursts through the soundtrack, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s version of “Salt Peanuts” which, in its sudden raw and arresting shot of real genius, tells you what Kerouac was never going to begin to find within.
No one could have begun to approximate the bisexuality of the Beats in Kerouac’s prime; no era before ours could ever have been as matter-of-fact about it as this film is.
It’s a film that I think Salles always knew was doomed to be merely adequate to its source. And in being so, the best it could ever be was good enough.
Which, when you see it, turns out, despite its disappointing reputation, to be very good indeed.
ON THE ROAD
Three and a half stars
Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen
Director: Walter Salles
Running time: 123 minutes.
Rating: R for rough language, sex, nudity and drug use.
The Lowdown: Long-delayed film version of Jack Kerouac’s culturally formative novel about young people searching for experience on the road across America.