Cannes 2012: On The Road
Posted on Wednesday May 23, 2012, 17:09 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
On The Road is one of those films that almost feels like a disappointment when it finally rolls around, being the kind of mythical project that is always talked about and yet never, ever seems to materialise. Rumour always had it that Francis Ford Coppola wasn't about to let go of it, and even with Walter Salles taking over the reins, it has taken almost two years since the start of shooting to reach Cannes. The good news is that it is a pretty good movie – in fact, probably as good as it ever was likely to be. The bad, but by no means disastrous, news is that the book was unfilmable for a reason. Like his friend William S Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Kerouac's book, published in 1957, was a literary phenomenon not only because of its portrayal of a new postwar subculture (the Beat Generation) but because of its rich, vernacular language (there is a LOT of voiceover here). Salles nails the first part but the film, being a film, can't match the latter. I don't much like his writing, but Kerouac had a unique voice, and that voice sold his readers on his – possibly exaggerated – tale of life on the road with Neal Cassady. Sadly, his loose, jazz-infused, poetic style is not always well reflected by Salles's classicism.
The casting surprised me, but after his really not very good performance in the really not very good Brighton Rock, Sam Riley makes a solid and believable Sal Paradise, Kerouac's alter ego. True to the book, it starts with his meeting – or is it obsession? – with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund, channelling the perhaps a bit more rock'n'roll Cassady) in '40s New York. Paradise, grieving his gruff, working-class father, lives in an apartment above a corner store with his Quebecois mother but moves with a bohemian crowd, and so Moriarty represents everything that he yearns to be, which is free. Moriarty is rootless and guiltless (his wife Marylou, played by Kristen Stewart, is just 16 when the movie begins), and Paradise follows this be-bop drifter on a coast-to-coast trip across America, searching for his real, artistic identity and trying to break a bad case of writer's block.
That, pretty much, is it; On The Road is a very beautiful series of vignettes, but it is a series of vignettes all the same. Surprisingly for a 2hr 20 movie there are no obvious drags, but there are two definite pit-stops, which Salles fills in with surprisingly flat montages. The period detail is very good, mind, and the film does accurately reflect Kerouac's social set, from the gay, garrulous Carlo (Tom Sturridge beautifully channelling Allen Ginsberg*) to the sardonic, cynical Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen beautifully channelling Burroughs*). Salles doesn't stint on the sex and drug front, explicitly showing their speed use and promiscuous sex lives, but, disappointingly, he fails to fully address the gay/homoerotic elements of the Beat generation, a topic that will never go away.
This is worth stating since, like the book, the film doesn't have any interesting female characters; they wash, take drugs (provided by the men), scrub, fuck and, inconveniently, have children, and one of the problems with making On The Road nowadays is how glaringly dated that all is. Stewart and Dunst have the most thankless tasks, and yet, in trying to update the story by not indulging Paradise's hero-worship as much as the book does, Salles undercuts the film's dramatic power. Moriarty – played with charm and electricity by Hedlund – is judged too readily, and even Paradise cools on him way too early for us to be much moved by the outcome. As for the one, single explicit gay sex scene (involving Hedlund and Steve Buscemi!), it comes with a very judgemental edge that doesn't really sit very well in a film celebrating liberation and fluidity.
It does have an energy, though, and it's interesting to see that period through a modern filter (for me, it was a golden age when kids read difficult books and listened to even more difficult music with love and gusto). So although it's not exactly straight out the fridge, daddy-o, I would say that it is, to a degree, hip, smart and striking enough to function as a superior, engaging lit-pic. But two questions remain. First, why wasn't this film made in the early 70s, when the rather more worldly free-spirit attitudes would have made it a much more fascinating time capsule than this? And second, how come all films made of “unfilmable” novels end with the writing of that book?
* I know what I'm talking about.