'On the Road' honors Kerouac's era-defining novel
By CHRIS BERGERON - GateHouse News Service
"On the Road" (A-)
Like the best cross-country trips, Walter Salles' film of Jack Kerouac's era-defining novel "On The Road'' meanders a bit as its two mad-for-kicks buddies race across America, chasing hot jazz and cool chicks.
As American a tale as Huck Finn and Jim rafting down the Mississippi, Kerouac's fictionalized version of himself and his soul mate and muse, Neal Cassady, sometimes veers from the fast lane to the breakdown lane before he finally realizes that boyhood, like the road, can't go on forever.
Faithful in velocity and spirit to the 1957 novel Kerouac typed on a roll of paper in three caffeine-fueled weeks, Salles propels his hipster anti-heroes Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) down lonesome highways and small town byways, searching for "it,'' the elusive tao of ecstatic knowledge that's just down the road.
Filming a novel that became sacred writ for generations of seekers is a risky proposition that invites carpers and nitpickers. What would Jack do?
Salles has come honorably close to bringing "On The Road'' to vital life more than half a century after it unleashed the Beat Generation on conformist Eisenhower America.
With some quibbles, he's transformed Kerouac's lyrical novel into a picturesque travelogue of the adolescent male soul, which is where Jack lived and died.
Aging hipsters and hippies in khakis and ponytails might quibble about this or that missing scene. Kids who grew up taking Ecstasy during spring break in Cancun might wonder what's the fuss.
Best known in the United States for "The Motorcycle Diaries'' about a young Che Guevara's Latin American road trip, Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier have captured the geographic and social topography of post-World War II America when restless young men - and some women - chased previously off-limits sex and drugs during the Cold War while Senator Joe McCarthy was ratcheting up the paranoia.
They've translated Kerouac's lyrical prose and infatuation with Western landscapes into scenes of brooding beauty of railroad yards and panoramic vistas, skid row flop houses and the aching possibility of standing by the roadside with your thumb out.
Salles' boldest and most successful risk was casting Kristen Stewart -- yes, of "Twilight'' fame -- as Marylou, Moriarty's 16-year-old bride, based on LuAnne Henderson who outlived Kerouac and Cassady.
While the novel mostly treats Marylou as ditzy jailbait, the lithe, sensual Stewart invests her with a vulnerability that grounds the story in the 1950s and reveals significant contrasts between the impulsive, pansexual Moriarty and the cautious Catholic Kerouac.
Riley lacks the real Kerouac's physical grace and makes his Sal Paradise more of a brooder than a high school and college halfback. Playing Moriarty/Cassady, Hedlund is a revelation as a motor mouth Dionysus whose limitless energy and id set a whole generation into frantic motion.
There are many minor casting coups. Viggo Mortensen is weirdly saturnine as Old Bull Lee, the stand-in for William S. Burroughs, and Kirsten Dunst conveys the imperious beauty of Cassady's long-suffering wife.
Most of all, when Hedlund, Stewart and Riley are together, grooving on jazz or smoking weed, climbing in bed or driving naked through the West, "On The Road'' explodes with anarchic passion.
In Edson Cemetery in Lowell, Kerouac's gravestone reads "He honored life.'' So does Salles' movie.
• "On The Road'' is rated R for strong sexual content, drug use and language. From the novel by Jack Kerouac; screenplay by Jose Rivera; Directed by: Walter Salles. Starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Tom Sturridge, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst.