The new movie called On The Road begins in an outdoor Manhattan parking lot. Sweaty rushed Dean Moriarty is seen in close-up, screeching big blocky cars into tight spots as customers grimace in disapproval. Dean's new friend Sal Paradise stands by, watching with admiration. Like Dean Moriarty himself, Jack Kerouac's On The Road, which Kerouac always wished to see on the silver screen, has finally arrived in New York City.
I attended a preview screening of the long-awaited film (it won't open in general release until just before Christmas) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, and sat there nearly wrenched with anticipation, because On The Road is one of my very favorite books in the world. I also had high hopes for the team behind the film: the monumental Francis Ford Coppola, who knows a bit about both epic cinema and transgressive literature, the screenwriter/director pair Jose Rivera and Walter Salles, who'd done solid work on a serious film about Che Guevara called Motorcycle Diaries. But I found it hard to imagine how any film based on Kerouac's wide, rambling, intentionally shapeless stream of consciousness novel could work.
In order to give my inevitably overflowing critical reaction to the film some structure, I decided in advance that I would review the film by posing and answering three questions. Do I love the film? Do I think people who haven't read On The Road will love the film? Finally, do I think Jack Kerouac would love the film? Here are my answers to these questions.
Do I Love The Film?
Yes, I love the Walter Salles/Jose Rivera/Francis Ford Coppola film version of Jack Kerouac's On The Road. The movie is fresh, joyful, lovingly made. It honors Jack Kerouac as a novelist, and takes all his experimental ideas about storytelling and narrative structure seriously.
There's plenty missing from the film that Kerouac freaks like me can complain about -- where the hell is the scene with the water tower in Shelton, Nebraska? -- but I'm pretty sure the filmmakers will get a heavy round of applause from the large community of Kerouac readers in the world. Some of the book's richness is lost, of course, but there can be no doubt about the moviemakers' respect for and understanding of Kerouac's ecstatic literary mission.
They show this respect not by slavishly reproducing the book, but by improvising with Kerouac's material. Kerouac would certainly have wanted this, since a belief in the spiritual power of inspiration was the key both to his writing method and to his popularity. A stiff retelling of On The Road wouldn't be On The Road at all.
To make this movie right, the crew and actors had to go on the road, breathe deeply into the inspiration provided by the book, and let the story find its way. It's clear that this has been the guiding principle of this film version -- even screenwriter Jose Rivera has emphasized that he decided early on to free himself from Kerouac's fictional text -- and all the actors seem to be on board with this approach.
Often, the film improvises by turning biographical. Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac's bookish altar ego in On The Road) now lives in Ozone Park, Queens rather than Paterson, New Jersey, and we see him typing On The Road on a taped-up scroll (the novel had no such metafictional device) as the film progresses. The movie emphasizes the spectacular burgeoning talent of the young disaffected proto-hipsters who surround Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. At one point, we see creepy Old Bull Lee (in real life, William S. Burroughs) step into his legendary orgone accumulator, and peer out like a trapped insect from the small window. Later, Sal Paradise reads a chapbook sent to him by Carlo Marx (in real life, Allen Ginsberg).
Amidst all this improvising, the filmmakers keep the film on track by closely following the straight plotline of the book -- four trips across America, as previously described here -- without any bothersome flashbacks, time cuts or Tarantino-esque surprise splices. This is a good choice because the plot is so thin and so lacking in climax or resolution that the only chance of producing a coherent sense of drama is to cling extra closely to all the climax and resolution that can possibly be found in Kerouac's text. It's a relief that the filmmakers have allowed themselves to be "conventional" when it comes to the narrative time structure of this tale.
On The Road is a Francis Ford Coppola production, and Coppola is great with actors (it was the amazing performances in The Godfather, more than anything else, that made that film work so well), so we have reason to hope for great performances in this film. The hopes are mostly met.
Garrett Hedlund is successful in the film's linchpin role of speedy naughty Dean Moriarty, young sex maniac, jazz fiend and reader of Proust. Hedlund acts up a storm, grinning and pouting and convulsing, and occasionally risks chewing on the furniture. Well, it's a role that demands so much charisma that a weaker actor might have completely folded under the pressure. Garrett Hedlund handles the challenge with enough conviction to carry the film.
The involvement of young superstar Kristen Stewart, I've heard, was considered such a box-office benefit that it was only after she agreed to play flighty, cheerful Marylou, Dean Moriarty's first wife, that financing of this expensive film became possible. If this is true, it's a shameful truth about modern film-making, and a big feather in Kristen Stewart's cap. She plays Marylou with enthusiasm and ablomb, and provides even more depth to this character than Kerouac did (Marylou was a rather flat character in Kerouac's novel, and gets more attention in the film). She inhabits her character well in the dramatic scenes, though she does her "enthralled" expression a little too often during the kissing scenes, and isn't always convincing when she acts wild. Then again, the character she's playing isn't always convincing when she acts wild either, so Stewart may be getting it exactly right.
Calm, crisp Sam Riley is not as satisfying in the role of Sal Paradise, a character that must be played with a brooding intensity and an enormous capacity for depth. Sam Riley's primary acting credit before On The Road was the indie film Control, in which he stars as angry, self-hating British punk/new wave rocker Ian Curtis, who killed himself after creating the band Joy Division. A British punk could be a good credit for an actor who will play Sal Paradise, because it means the actor understands cool -- however, the cool of a 1980s British punk in a new wave band may be too dry for the cool of an 1940s urban drifter with a rucksack full of Thomas Wolfe-inspired manuscripts. Sam Riley often underplays the part, failing to present the full range of emotions I expect to see in Sal Paradise. I think I would have played the part better.
Most of the other roles are also good. I've met in real life Carolyn Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty's second wife Camille, and I'm pleased to see that Kirsten Dunst nails Carolyn's sophisticated sense of humor perfectly. Viggo Mortenson is absolutely inspired as Burroughs/Lee. James Franco did Allen Ginsberg slightly better in a different film than Tom Sturridge manages to do here (though Sturridge is fine), and I have mixed feelings about the portrayal of Ed and Galatea Dunkel, who are turned here into completely comic characters. Ed Dunkel is an amusing hungry fool at the Paradise family dinner table, but Galatea Dunkel's big dramatic scene comes off more shrill than sympathetic, which is not how Kerouac would have painted her. Kerouac painted all his characters with sympathy, and nothing but sympathy.
I had especially high expectations for Gustavo Santaolalla's musical direction. Being asked to produce the soundtrack for an expensive film about beatniks and jazz is like being asked to be the one to bring the brownies and ice cream sundaes at a potluck dinner. You really can't not please the crowd with an assignment like that.
Santaolalla doesn't quite blow the gig, but he doesn't blow the roof off either, and he was supposed to blow the roof off. He comes up with solid choices: Ella Fitzgerald's "I've Got The World on a String", "Salt Peanuts" for a Kristen Stewart/Garrett Hedlund jive dance number, Son House growling about the cooling board during a drive into New Orleans. But there's just not enough music in the film, and Santaolalla leans a little too heavily on a single Slim Gaillard tune, "Yip Roc Heresy" as a connective musical theme. "Yip Roc Heresy" is a great bebop scat number, but the song was already featured on a high-profile Beat Generation boxed set, so it's hardly an original choice here. Santaolalla could have demonstrated deeper familiarity with Jack Kerouac's Slim Gaillard obsession if he'd tossed in a few verses from "Flat Foot Floogie with the Floy-Floy".
Eric Gautier's cinematography rises to the occasion more clearly than Santaolalla's musical direction, and the film evokes enough visual grandeur that I am calling Eric Gautier's Oscar in 2013 right now. Check back with me in six months to see if I got it right.
So, yes, I loved the film version of On The Road. That's not to say it gets everything right. And that leads to the second question I pledged to ask:
Will People Who Haven't Read "On The Road" Love The Movie?
I'm not sure if people who haven't read On The Road will love the movie. I fear that they won't, and based on the rumors I've heard about the film's costs, I fear this will amount to a financial failure for the film.
I don't understand why this should be the case, but On The Road seems to have been engineered to aim for blockbuster success. I've been following Coppola's project closely since it was announced in 1995, and have always been puzzled to hear that Coppola was having big trouble obtaining necessary financing. Why should On The Road be an expensive film to make? It doesn't require expensive technology or massive sets -- just a few old cars and a few old diners. It doesn't require A-list actors. Why would it make sense that a film project with modest needs and obvious appeal would require years of struggle to obtain financing? The conclusion must be that, for reasons I don't know, the financial stakes of the film got raised to the point where it had to promise to "go big" in order to get made.
This might be because of financial pressure from the Sampas family of Lowell, Massachusetts, which controls the Jack Kerouac estate and is known for high-handed financial dealings. Perhaps the literary estate demanded so much upfront for its cooperation with the production of the film that the filmmakers had to promise a blockbuster hit in order to pay the required price. On the other hand, the official word is that Coppola did not have to pay a lot to the Kerouac estate for the material, so this might be a false clue.
But there is undoubtedly a sense of inflated financial expectation about this film's USA release, and the tension over audience aggregation is the best possible explanation for the frustrating fact that even today, five months after the film's world premiere at Cannes, the film is not showing in American theaters. It has shown around the world, and Americans have had to endure tantalizing and frustrating reports that the film was being significantly cut following its European release, as if to increase its commercial potential (personally, I don't care if the cuts help the film; I want to see all of it).
If it turns out to be the case that On The Road is expected by its financiers to be a super-duper Oscar-contending record-breaking blockbuster along the lines of Twilight or Harry Potter, my guess is that it won't meet these expectations. The movie has a Merchant-and-Ivory kind of appeal, but I'm not sure it has the ingredients for a popular smash. Most of all, it's missing a gripping plot.
The lack of a conventional plot is after all one of the points of Kerouac's novel -- because, Kerouac wanted us to understand, life itself does not have a gripping plot. Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise go to Denver. Then they go to San Francisco. Then they go back to New York. Then they go to New Orleans. Then they go back to New York. Then they go to Mexico. Then they go back to New York. Somehow, this adds up to a kickass 1957 bestselling novel. But I'm not sure it adds up to a kickass 2012 blockbuster movie.
There is a deeper human story to the novel: the question of the character of hero/villain Dean Moriarty, who is a sex addict, a hapless criminal, a grimy hustler and a selfish "rat" (as Sal Paradise observes while he lies sick and abandoned on a Mexican mattress, in the scene pictured at the top of this page). Yet, despite these rather considerable flaws, everybody who meets Dean Moriarty has a great time with him, and they all end up happier than he does. This is the ironic psychological moral of On The Road, and in fact Jose Rivera's screenplay nails the moral message, in all its ambiguity, very well.
However, it's not clear that a well-nailed moral message filled to the brim with ironic ambiguity is going to pack the teeming teenage audiences that the financiers of this film are expecting. I'm also not sure what anybody who doesn't already love Jack Kerouac will think of this film. They might find it childish, self-indulgent and dull.
So, I've answered my first question in the affirmative, and the second with a likely no. The third question may be the most important of all.
Would Jack Kerouac Love The Movie?
The question of whether or not Jack Kerouac would love the new movie version of On The Road won't matter much to most moviegoers, But the question matters a lot to me.
On this count, I have a happy answer to report. Jack Kerouac would have loved this film version of On The Road.
He would have loved the seriousness and high quality values of the production. He would have been thrilled by the conviction and fresh energy that Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Sam Riley bring to their roles. He would have loved the fact that the screenwriter kept his plot (such as it was) completely intact but had fun with improvised real-life/fiction transpositions. He would have loved the dance scenes and the expansive cinematography. He would have probably loved Kristen Stewart, though he might have muttered that pretty girls make graves. Maybe most of all, he would have loved that the movie makes his beloved mother look good.
I believe that Jack Kerouac would have loved this film version of On The Road, and probably would sat through it three times in a row and cried.