You had to be there
Garrett Hedlund delivers a performance that will be hard to forget in On the Road as Dean Moriarity, the devastatingly charming, dangerously exploitative central figure of Jack Keroac's classic Beat Generation Bible based on his friend Neal Cassidy. Hedlund sees this is the best chance he's ever had as an actor and goes for broke playing a character who himself goes for broke, but isn't there for the people he loves and leaves. "The only people for me are the mad ones" says Sal Paradise (Keroac's alter ego, played by Sam Riley), "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 exploding like spiders across the stars." As Dean Moriarity Hedlund is a Benzedrine fireball of energy, dancing, sexy, naked, shaking, his eyes gleaming.
But he's a will-o-the-wisp, and so is almost everything else in this classic story. Maybe you had to be there. The personalities, including Allen Ginsberg (AKA Carlo Marx/Tom Sturridge), the highways, the sex, the jazz, the drugs, the whole dirty, sad, exciting cutting edge of postwar American emerging outliers' culture: it all just seems to brush across the screen and vanish before you can grasp it. Maybe that's the book, not Salles' fault, except for being too faithful. Maybe this is why it took more than half a century for the book to come to the screen, and why, though the Brazilian director glamorized another famous road story, Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries, with a certain amount of success, this movie doesn't quite work, except as a stream of lovely visuals, like an endless trailer. Not that it doesn't capture moments of deeply painful sadness and aching youthful eagerness. Not that this isn't a classic moment, a leap from the postwar world of the Forties to a Bebop-and-Bennie-fueled generation of revolt and sexual experimentation. It's got Ginsberg, it's got William Burroughs, it's got Dizzy Gillespie, it's got Billy Holiday, and Senator McCarthy's voice is whispering in the background while Hudsons and Pontiacs swirl around on blue highways. This is the swellest movie that doesn't work in a long time.
One problem is that Sal is a cipher. Sam Riley isn't quite the "black hole" one critic called him. He knows well enough to go through the motions and did the doomed youth thing very well as Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn's Control. But that was his moment, as this is Garrett Hedlund's. Riley was more in his element there, around Manchester. Even for somebody else Kerouac's sponge of an insecure writer might be a pretty slippery character to grasp. But everything keeps coming and going, coming and going. Dean isn't there when he's needed; most spectacularly, he abandons Sal in Mexico when he's ravaged by dysentery, just ups and leaves, like he does with his two wives, and everyone else.
The bigger problem is that this novel, not really Keroac's best, just his most famous, isn't really about anything you can pin down or put on the screen. It's about itself. It's not about Dean Moriarity/Neal Cassidy: it's about Keroac's fascination with/ attraction to him; about his dangerous magnetism, his power to wreck lives, whip up fake enthusiasm and then walk away.
Too much of this movie is just a schtick. Somebody does an amazing turn as some bebop band leader, and then it's over. Terrance Howard does a slick, oily, disdainful turn as a jazz musician, and then he's gone. Viggo Morgenssen is a disappointment as William Burroughs. He's got the voice down -- except that nobody could do that knowing twang like Burroughs himself. He gets a few lines about cartels, shoots a gun, has a crazy wife, goes into an orgone box. It's a schtick. It's like a charade: oh yeah, let me guess: it's William Burroughs! Tom Sturridge is cute and sexy; he's young, he's writing poetry - when one of his poems, that is Carlo Marx's, Allen Ginsberg's, comes in the mail to Sal and he reads it aloud, you realize that's what's missing here, and what the book is about: words. Despite all the voiceovers, what we need is reams and reams more of Kerouac's lyrical American prose, singing the song of the highway. The novel is about him finding his own voice out of his endless palaver and endless enthusiasm for all these experiences in which he is always more observer than participant, the roman candle somebody else, mainly Dean Moriarity. There's a telling scene when Dean invites him into bed with him and Marylou and Sal pulls back and says, "Do you really want this?" and Dean says "She thinks it's swell"; but Sal asks Dean to leave. He's never quite up to Dean's games, and that's why he's addicted to Dean.
This is a French-Brazilian production, with beautiful, gold-drenched cinematography by Eric Gautier, who's worked for a raft of big name French directors, but it's too literal and limited a reproduction of the Kerouac novel. There's not enough of Kerouac's words in it, all the book is ultimately about; but there's not enough that's cinematic either, not enough of what "On the Road" in 1949-1950 America cross-country would mean in purely visual terms. Salles needed to go and do some heavy poaching from Robert Frank's seminal book of photographs The Americans, to which in fact Kerouac wrote an introduction. Frank's book came out just a few years later, capturing a wealth of more specific and unexpected detail, a whole reimagining of late Forties, early Fifties America. Of course mimicking Frank's tableaux wouldn' be easy, but highways and Hudsons and Pontiacs and shabby houses and gaudy jazz clubs just aren't quite enough to invoke the intensity of this time and place that Kerouac breathes in and breathes out in his prose.
Anyway, though, see the movie for Garrett Hedlund. And some of the ladies aren't hard to look at either, especially Kristen Stewart, even if she's just to look at. Kristen Dunst as Dean's scorned and then scorning wife Camille has some intense scenes with Hedlund, the chemistry between the two actors so strong they've became an off-screen couple.
On the Road, a Homeric 124 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2012. It was Mike D'Angelo who tweeted: "On the Road (Salles): 51. Insert unadaptable-novel boilerplate. Riley's a black hole but Hedlund is tremendous, finally becomes a star." It opened in France shortly after to fair reviews (Allociné press rating: 3.0). It opened sparsely in the US in December, and unrolled in a sprinkling of other places in following months, disappearing quickly, like Dean Moriarity. Screened for this review during a one-week run at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, California, March 26, 2013.