[Review] – On The Road

5 Jan

On the Road

Title: On the Road
Year: 2012
Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera, based on the novel by Jack Kerouac
Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard
MPAA Rating: R, strong sexual content, drug use and language
Runtime: 124 min
IMDb Rating: 6.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 45%
Metacritic: 54

It’s been a long time since I’ve gone into a movie feeling both such a tremendous level of excitement while also feeling dubious and guarding myself for potential disappointment. I know it’s said a lot, perhaps too much, but Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road is the type of book that changes lives if you read it at just the right time and age. It did for me, I remember having read this, Stephen Chboksy‘s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay during the same year and all three of them, paired up with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, remain amongst the most influential pieces of literature I’ve encountered in my life.

Seeing one of those books you have such a substantial connection to come alive on screen can be a daunting proposal. After all, the chances that you’ll like them are always pretty much slim to none, because books are personal experiences, you imagine the places and characters and emotions a certain way that’s wholly unique to you and that would be damn hard for another person to replicate.

Of course, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was adapted into a movie in 2012, and I gave it a perfect grade, an A+, and (with about 10 2012 releases I’ve still got left to catch up with) it stands as the 10th best film I saw from that year. Granted, the fact that it was such a perfect adaptation probably has more than a little to do with the fact that Mr. Chbosky was one of those rare authors who not only penned the adaptation of his novel for the screen, but also directed it.

The Catcher in the Rye probably won’t get a big screen adaptation any time soon because of how explicitly reluctant J.D. Salinger was to have that done. Mr. Chabon’s novel, which to this day remains my favorite book of all-time, has flirted with adaptation for years now, but nothing ever really comes out of it no matter how big the names surrounding the project are. On the Road just got made, I’ll talk about just how successfully so in a while, but it’s important to note that having this seminal beat generation novel on the screen was no small feat.

After all, way back in 1957 Mr. Kerouac wrote a letter to Marlon Brando asking him to play Dean Moriarty while the author himself would play Sal Paradise. The letter was never replied and further negotiations with Paramount went dead. Flash forward to 1979 and you have Francis Ford Coppola buying the rights, and he spent years and years trying to come up with a script and to make it happen; one iteration had Brad Pitt and Ethan Hawke as Dean and Sal, the other, with Joel Schumacher attached to direct, had Colin Farrell and Billy Crudup.

So, really, it’s been over half a century since someone first had the idea of turning the novel into a film. Then in 2008 Walter Salles, fresh off the success of his brilliant The Motorcycle Diaries, was approached to direct until the economy collapsed and financing fell through. Then at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, he got a green light, and Mr. Salles made Searching for On the Road, a documentary in which he makes the same road trip as the one in the novel, talking to Beat poets who knew Jack Kerouac along the way, to understand the men and the time that were such an integral part of the novel he’d have the huge challenge to adapt.

Mr. Salles then had to convince the cast he had lined up back in 2007 to still be on board three years later: Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty and Kristen Stewart as Marylou. They all said yes, though of course arranging for Ms. Stewart’s schedule to work out was a task considering how huge she had gotten in those years because of Twilight. The rest of the cast started shaping out with some incredible names which included Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams and Kirsten Dunst.

The film, which premiered at Cannes this year to mixed reactions, is one I love. I say that with both some and none trepidation at the same time, if that makes any sense. It’s not a perfect adaptation, possibly because this is a novel that can’t really have one, and it’s not one mostly because it’s just too hard to really capture the fizzing energy charge of the book, but I loved just how much respect and love was shown to the source material by everyone involved here. You get it that this was a labor of love by the cast and crew, and because of that I kind of loved this whole thing quite a bit.

Sal, the aspiring writer; Dean, the charming ex-con; Marylou, Dean’s seductive wife. These characters mean something to me, their bond means something to me, their desire to escape the conventional constrictions of life means something to me, their decision to head off on the road to discover life and themselves means something to me. The fact that it so clearly meant something to Mr. Salles, Mr. Riley, Mr. Hedlund and Ms. Stewart means the world to me.

I have avoided reading reviews for this one, but I think it won’t be that cool to love this movie. I think people will say, with varying degrees of consternation, that this adaptation doesn’t have the voice of Jack Kerouac and that the voice is what the novel is all about. Maybe. But, like I said, reading the book is an intensely personal experience and everyone has a truly unique vision and connection to it.

What I mean by that is that it’s impossible for anyone to deliver the version of On the Road you imagined, but at least you have to take comfort, and love, the fact that you know Mr. Salles was one of those people influenced by the book and that, at the very least, this is his vision of it. It’s a beautifully romantic vision of it, romantic about youth, poetic about freedom, always genuinely sensitive to its characters. If it doesn’t capture the people who inspired the book, I honestly believe it captures that youthful yearning they represented, and thus I believe Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and company would love the heck out of this movie.

Another sign that this vision was made out of love is that those big names like Mr. Mortensen’s or Ms. Adams’ most definitely represent actors who signed on to play these supporting roles just because the book means so much to them as well and they wanted to be a part of this. That love is felt through this whole movie, seriously finely written by Jose Rivera and just stunningly shot by Eric Gautier, both of them also collaborators of Mr. Salles’ in The Motorcycle Diaries. That cinematography, by the way, is a big reason as to why this worked so well for me personally. The sceneries of the novel were obviously a huge part of it, and how they’re shot here, in such a fluid and seemingly random way, really does feel like how the Beats would have experienced it.

As for the central performances, Sam Riley’s good, but Mr. Hedlund and Ms. Stewart are just awe-inspiring to watch. Ms. Stewart, cast after Mr. Salles saw her in the great Into the Wild, absolutely lets herself go in this role, losing herself in the seductive Marylou, showing us, yet again, just how good an actress she can be when she’s not busy being a vampire. Mr. Hedlund, in the most difficult role to playm is amazing, you believe him as Dean Moriarty, you believe his great presence, how beloved he is by everyone, the sexual magnetism, the irrevocable energy. I was left sincerely impressed by what this young actor did here.

I will have no beef if you hate it or love it because I recognize how it could so easily evoke both of those reactions because of how different our experiences with the source material are. I personally loved the hell out of this movie. I thought that, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it so perfectly captured youth, the innocence of it, of these amazing people just living on the edge of it, experiencing all the things they want to experience. Perhaps it’s not exactly my vision of the story, which is why I’m not giving this one a perfect grade, but it’s a vision I respect and adore because of how evident it is that it was made with as much love and respect as I, or any other fan of the novel, could have hoped for.

Grade: A

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