Thursday, December 20, 2012

Walter Salles tackles Kerouac's one-of-a-kind ON THE ROAD -- and mostly triumphs

It has been decades since I read On the Road, one of the most unusual American coming-of-age tales ever written (I didn't even think it as part of that genre until just now). The novel is, as well, one of the great American road trips, quests, and expansions of our ideas about love, sex, friendship and religion. Did I appreciate it at the time of that first read? Only somewhat. Shit -- it was too scary! And counter to just about everything this poor, sheltered, Christian clod had been brought up to believe.

Around that time, I recall rumblings about a possible film version, which made me (and many others) say that this novel was "unfilmable." How could we imagine otherwise, considering what Hollywood had done to Jack Kerouac's later The Subter-raneans? And back then, in terms of American movies, Hollywood was the only game in town. (Well, there was John Cassavetes, and though they were both counter-culture in their way, I don't picture Kerouac and Cassavetes melding creatively, expansively, emotionally, interest-wise or most other ways. Do you?)

Now, 55 years after its initial publication, the movie version of ON THE ROAD is finally here -- directed by the smart and talented Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles and adapted from Kerouac's novel by José Rivera -- and if it's not the be-all-and-end-all, it is a valiant and often on-the-mark movie that captures Kerouac's period, places and people with skill and depth.

Casting is important to most movies, but here, given the iconic characters that fill the book, getting it right is vital, and Salles and his four -- count-em! -- casting directors (click and scroll down) have done a bang-up job.

If it seems odd to cast a Brit (Sam Riley, above, with Alice Braga) as leading man/narrator/Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise, the author himself was born Jean-Louis Kerouac of French-Canadian parents. Riley, as usual, does a fine job, but it's Garrett Hedlund, below, as Dean Moriarty (the Neal Cassady stand-in) who surely seals the deal with his indelible portrayal.

Hedlund (above, and that's right--he's the kid from TRON: Legacy) has grown up some, and he captures the easy-going sexuality, sensuality, charisma and mystique of Moriarty/Cassady about as well as I can imagine this being done by anyone. Bi-sexual but probably more inclined toward the gals, the character can't be pinned down for anything, breaking hearts as a matter of course -- including, it seems Kerouac's, even though the relationship supposedly never got past heavy-duty friendship.

Nonetheless, the scenes between these two characters, as portrayed by Riley and Hedlund, simply vibrate with alertness, desire, tension and specificity. It's thrilling to watch them -- and the rest of the enormous cast, all of whom find the specifics in their roles, no matter how little screen time they get.

In addition to the wonderful "look" of the movie -- capturing the 1950s so well without that undue calling attention to "objects" that some period films fall back on -- it's this almost constant electricity created by actors who seems utterly jazzed by the opportunity presented them ("We're finally bringing On the Road to life: How about that!") that makes this movie so alive.

That huge cast includes everyone from Kristen Stewart (two photos above) and Kirsten Dunst (just above) to Vigo Mortensen (below) doing a dandy job of bringing William Burroughs to visual and audio life.

Amy Adams, Elizabeth Moss, Tom Sturridge and Steve Buscemi are just a few of the terrific actors on view, and yet so attuned is each to his/her character and so well does the screenplay and direction make use of them -- and so truly bizarre are many of the folk shown here -- that we get not a whiff of the silly "cameo role" nonsense that something like the original Around the World is 80 Days offered up.

Purists who have their mind set as to there being but a single way to portray their favorite character(s) may find fault with this "Road." But for those of us willing to open up, experience, and live with these characters awhile, the rewards are ample.

So, yes, they really did it. They brought On the Road to the screen at last. And the 1950s -- the era one might see as the first to introduce a genuine alternative life-style to America in an even remotely major way -- lives again in all its scary attraction and weird, scuzzy beauty. The movie, from IFC Films and Sundance Selects and running 124 minutes, opens tomorrow, Friday, December 21, in New York City at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and in the Los Angeles area at the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark. It'll be all over the place, come January 2013.

The photos above are from the film itself, 
except that of Mr. Salles, which is by Mike Coppola
courtesy of Getty Images.

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