Film Review: On The Road – The Beat Goes on the Road, Again

Last summer, while I was literally driving around Europe, I tried to explain to a highly intelligent European, who just so happens to be the best read person I know in terms of contemporary fiction, what the essence of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is.  But it wasn’t easy for me to put it into words.  And the other day, when I went to see the screen adaptation of Kerouac’s novel directed by Walter Salles and written by Jose Rivera, I wondered: How can one translate a story that’s often about characters driving around North America in the confined space of a car into a cinematic experience?

The film not only solves that motion picture puzzle but also made me realize what the quintessence of Road is: Free spiritedness.  Or, as Christopher Adamo puts it in his essay “Beat U-Topos or Taking Utopia On The Road, The Case of Jack Kerouac” in the book The Philosophy of the Beats: “personal liberty taken to extreme…”

The plot of the novel by the writer of French Canadian ancestry who was born in Massachusetts in 1922 and originally named Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac is simple enough: Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and male friends with literary aspirations and sexy female companions careen about the continent in a car, driving like whirling dervishes from place to place, stopping long enough to have madcap misadventures from Denver to Louisiana, San Francisco to Manhattan.  (Kerouac also lived in Ozone Park, a few miles from where I grew up, and the Queens neighborhood my former classmate Cyndi Lauper writes about in her new memoir).

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification.  What makes the novel — and movie — riveting is its context and subtext, as a testament of youthful restlessness and rebellion in America’s postwar years.  Listen closely, and you’ll hear fascistic Senator Joe McCarthy on the radio; watch intently, and you’ll see Tricky Dick Nixon on the tube.  Kerouac rendered in literary form the cadence and tempo of be-bop music.  Along with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, On The Road is the seminal, iconic work of the Beat generation, a countercultural movement against the “American Way” of A-bombs, anti-communism, McCarthyism, materialism, uber-conformity, etc., in favor of a Bohemian quest for the meaning of life.  As Kerouac put it: “How shall we live?”

Of course, Kerouac’s epistle is autobiographical, and what enhances one’s appreciation of the film version is filling in the blanks and knowing who is supposed to be who; without this knowledge half of the enjoyment and significance goes over the head of the unsophisticated viewer.  Sal Paradise is obviously the author’s nom de plume, while Kerouac’s sobriquet for Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) is Carlo Marx, which reveals a dry Cold War wit, as Ginsberg’s mother had reportedly been a dues paying member of the Communist Party USA.

Dean Moriarty is the pseudonym of who is arguably not only Road’s protagonist (you may beg to differ and believe Sal is), but its most enigmatic character, the Benzedrine-fuelled, frenetic Neal Cassady.  It’s interesting to note that Kerouac, who became increasingly disenchanted with the literally freewheeling Cassady, apparently named him after Sherlock Holmes’ arch enemy, Professor Moriarty, “the Napoleon of crime.”  Dean is repeatedly shown committing petty crimes (although if you or yours are the victims, these crimes are anything but petty).  In any case, one can see the actual Cassady behind the wheel of Ken Kesey’s bus named “Further,” driving the Merry Pranksters across America in the documentary Magic Trip Alex Gibney helped piece together in 2011 out of footage Kesey had shot during cross country peregrinations in the early 1960s, where, among other things, the proto-hippies make a Beatnik pilgrimage.

An odd thing about Road’s casting is that many actors in supporting roles are far better known and accomplished than the two (or three) leads are.  Fresh from depicting Sigmund Freud in 2011’s brilliant A Dangerous Method, Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings) here incarnates Old Bull Lee, whom those-in-the-know will recognize as William Burroughs, the writer whose novel Naked Lunch inspired another Beat-themed movie in 1991, directed by David Cronenberg (with Peter Weller as Bill Lee and Judy Davis as wife Joan Lee).  One can’t help wonder whether “Bull Lee” is a double entendre for “Bully”; Burroughs, but of course, was suspected of shooting his common-law wife in a William Tell- like incident (or was it an “accident”?).  In any case, Bull packs heat in Road.  And who knew that Burroughs/Bull actually had one of those Wilhelm Reich orgone boxes?  Wow!

Another star, Amy Adams (2009’s Julie & Julia, and as Lois Lane in 2013’s upcoming Man of Steel), plays Bull’s wife Jane, who, in real life ironically has the same last name as the actress who portrays her, Joan Vollmer Adams.  Jane and Bull live in quite a rambling house at Algiers (Louisiana, not North Africa — that would come later in Burroughs’ life) with their surprisingly filthy kids.  As Dean’s wife Camille (alter ego of Carolyn Cassady), Kirsten Dunst (who played the preternaturally beauty Mary Jane in the Spider-Man franchise) is barely recognizable, looking much older than the actress’ 30 years.  Either life has not been very kind to Ms. Dunst or she is a superb thespian who fully embodies the beaten down quality of the philandering, meandering Moriarty’s long suffering wife.  (Maybe this is the real meaning of “Beat”?)

As the pan-sexual Dean’s other main squeeze, 18 year old Marylou (Kristen Stewart of the Twilight franchise depicts the real life Luanne Henderson) alternates between kinky sex with a penchant for a ménage a trois, and an expressed yearning for marriage, baby carriage and white picket fence.  This may be a source of the wandering Dean’s ambivalence; on the one hand, he longs for women’s sexual favors, but loathes the possible ensuing entanglements and the demands that strings attached-responsibilities place upon him.  Elisabeth Moss (Peggy on AMC’s Mad Men) also has a good turn as Galatea Dunkel, another spurned spouse of one of Dean’s peripatetic pals, Ed Dunkel (Danny Morgan); they are fictionalized versions of Helen and Al Hinkle.

One of the boldest aspects of this movie is its in your face homosexuality, featuring Dean’s trysts with Carlo and pay for play with a gay salesman played by yet another well known actor, Steve Buscemi (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and habitué of Coen Brothers’ films).  It’s been about 20 or so years since I read Road, so memory may fail me, but I don’t remember the gay sex openly recounted in the published version of Kerouac’s text, which he self censored prior to Viking Press’ 1957 publication of the novel in those straighter, more straitlaced times.  So if the filmmakers decided to inject this by actually making use of our greater freedoms of expression today, bravo.

However, I do recall what A. Robert Lee called “interracial love” in “Tongues Untied, Beat Ethnicities, Beat Multiculture” in the aforementioned The Philosophy of the Beats.  Lee references “Sal’s campesina lover Terry”; Brazilian actress Alice Braga (Sonia Braga’s niece) winsomely plays the character based on Bea Franco. (Progressives will also be moved by sequences of the migrant farm workers’ plight).  Sal and Dean have an orgy with Mexican women and also befriend the African American jazz musician Walter (Terrence Howard, 2008’s Iron Man).  One can’t stress enough what a taboo it was for Kerouac to daringly depict inter-ethnic sex and friendships in America where apartheid was still widely practiced, as he also courageously did in other works, such as in 1958’s The Subterraneans.    

Although outshone in the Hollywood firmament by many of his onscreen colleagues, the handsome, charismatic Hedlund holds his own onscreen, capturing those intriguing Cassady/Moriarty qualities that must have bewitched Kerouac and countless male and female partners in and out of crime 60 or so years ago.  And when, after years of meticulous note taking Riley’s Sal Paradise finally prepares the paper in that world famous if unique way (dear reader, your spoiler adverse reviewer wouldn’t dare ruin the fun for you by revealing how) to type away in Ozone Park, it’s a moment of literary epiphany.  And oh, how he types: Be-bop on paper!

Francis Ford Coppola, who bought the rights/writes to the novel decades before, executive produced this film, and cannily retained the team of Walter Salles and Jose Rivera to direct and write the long awaited movie it took only 55 years to bring to the silver screen.  Salles and Rivera, naturally, were the ideal choice to adapt Kerouac’s classic, because they co-created the film version of the greatest nonfiction road trip of the 20th century: Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries.

Alas, like Che, Kerouac and Cassady did not live out their natural life spans.  While Che, the international left’s beloved knight in shining armor, sacrificed his life trying to answer Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?”, the self-obsessed Kerouac and Cassady could not answer the riddle of  “How shall we live?” What a long strange trip it’s been — albeit an exhilarating one, while it lasted.

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