Film Review: 'On the Road' again and the ride is bumpy

Beat icons seem not quite 'mad'

AP Photo/IFC Films/Sundance Selects, Gregory Smith
Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, left), the Jack Kerouac character, and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the Neal Cassady figure, in “On the Road.”

AP Photo/IFC Films/Sundance Selects, Gregory Smith Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, left), the Jack Kerouac character, and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the Neal Cassady figure, in “On the Road.”

The life of young writer Sal Paradise is shaken and ultimately redefined by the arrival of Dean Moriarty, a free-spirited, fearless, fast talking Westerner and ...

Rating: R for strong sexual content, drug use and language

Length: 140 minutes

Released: March 22, 2013 Limited

Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge

Director: Walter Salles

Writer: Jack Kerouac, Jose Rivera

More info and showtimes »

AP Photo/IFC Films/Sundance Selects, Gregory Smith
Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, left), the Jack Kerouac character, and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the Neal Cassady figure, in “On the Road.”

AP Photo/IFC Films/Sundance Selects, Gregory Smith Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, left), the Jack Kerouac character, and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the Neal Cassady figure, in “On the Road.”

This undated publicity film image released by IFC Films/Sundance Selects shows Sam Riley as Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac in a scene from the film, 'On the Road,' directed by Walter Salles. (AP Photo/IFC Films/Sundance Selects, Gregory Smith)

Photo by Gregory Smith

This undated publicity film image released by IFC Films/Sundance Selects shows Sam Riley as Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac in a scene from the film, "On the Road," directed by Walter Salles. (AP Photo/IFC Films/Sundance Selects, Gregory Smith)

'On the Road'

Rated R for sexual content, profanity and the depiction of drug use.

2 Stars

Late in “On the Road,” a succession of images connects the promise of the expansive American landscape with the freedom of expression and self-invention that is another of this country’s wonders.

A close look at a ribbon in a typewriter is replaced by a shot of what songwriters have called the endless black ribbon — the highway, vanishing away from the moviegoer, deep into the screen, toward the horizon. This is followed before long by the image of another sort of escape route, the famous 124-foot scroll of tracing paper on which Jack Kerouac would type his classic novel of Beat Generation disillusionment and discovery, “On the Road.” The viewer may recall that Kerouac typed without margins and paragraph breaks, as if paving the paper with typeface, in hopes of riding these markings to freedom.

Written in 1951, “On the Road” was not published until 1957. The journey from page to screen has been even more protracted. Thirty-four years after Francis Ford Coppola acquired the rights to the influential novel, a movie version of “On the Road” (with Coppola credited as an executive producer) rolls into Malco’s Ridgeway Four for its exclusive local engagement. The Memphis booking comes 14 months after the project’s Sundance Film Festival premiere and a few months after a late 2012 limited release that qualified the movie for the Oscar nominations that never came.

A faithful period piece of the late 1940s and early 1950s, “On the Road” was directed by Brazil’s Walter Salles, whose past road movies include “Central Station” (1998) and “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004); the screenwriter is Puerto Rico’s José Rivera, Oscar-nominated for his work on the latter film. These artists are intelligent and gifted, but they have failed to provide a satisfying answer to the question facing anyone who might want to make a movie version of “On the Road,” namely: Why bother?

Inspired by Kerouac’s real-life friendships and experiences as a jazz-loving, “tea”-smoking, Proust-reading, struggling would-be novelist based in Queens, New York, “On the Road” focuses primarily on the friendship between Sal Paradise (played onscreen by a dull Sam Riley), the narrator and Kerouac figure, and newcomer Dean Moriarty (an impressive Garrett Hedlund), a free-spirited car thief. Dean is a version of real-life Beat icon Neal Cassady, whose reckless, restless life-as-performance-art existence and sexual charisma are a source of envy, inspiration and frustration for Sal and his gay poet friend, Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), based on Allen Ginsberg.

Episodic, even random, “On the Road” follows Sal and Dean through a series of road trips, minor (and sometimes-sordid) misadventures, searches for meaning (Sal briefly becomes a cotton-picker in Salinas) and sexual threesomes, some involving Dean’s women. These apparently disposable paramours include Camille, played by Kirsten Dunst, whose dimples never have appeared more chasm-like, and Marylou, a 16-year-old “chick” played by Kristen Stewart, whose “Twilight” fan base apparently is too young, choosy or incurious to have made this R-rated movie a hit.

“The only people that interest me are the mad ones,” says Sal, in a paraphrased rewrite of Kerouac’s prose. “The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time — the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like Roman candles across the night.” It’s a promising sentiment, but the yearning and burning of Kerouac’s prose are lost in Salles’ straightforward staging of incidents from the novel. The movie fails to demonstrate what makes these people memorable, especially in 2013, when we’re already familiar with such “mad” 1950s rebels as Brando, James Dean and Elvis.

True to the vagabond promise of its title and to its status as a coproduction of Brazil and France, “On the Road” was shot all over the place, with significant work taking place in California, Arizona, Louisiana, Canada, Mexico and Argentina. The end credits list another 34 cities where the movie “was shot on location.” The roll call includes Memphis, but I didn’t recognize any scenery, nor did the filmmakers connect with local authorities or the Film Commission.

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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