On the Road: Walter Salles Version of Jack Kerouac Cult Novel

Walter Salles’ eagerly-awaited screen version of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is an honorable artistic flop, but a flop nonetheless.

World-premiering at the 2012 Cannes Film Fest (In Competition), where Salles is a regular presence, “On the Road” opens in France and the rest of Europe early this summer. Likely to divide American critics, the picture will be released in the U.S. by IFC/Sundance Selects. Judging by the response to the first press screening, I have no doubts that this Franco-Brazillian co-production will be emraced more warmly by foreign reviewers and audiences than by their American counterparts.

As adapted to the big screen by Jose Rivera and directed by the intelligent Brazillian Salles (the duo is responsible for the charming “The Motorcycle Diaries,” in 2004), “On the Road” the movie is too gentle, too detached, too respectable, failing to convey the wild spirit, heartbeat, tone of the iconic book, which was essentialy a celebration of the American dream (and myth)mof going and moving. The book, which has defined the Beat Generation, shaped the style of generations of writers, and influenced American literary tastes in many significant ways.

Over the past half a century, countless directors, including Francis Ford Coppola (who’s credited as executive producer in this project), have wanted and tried to adapt Kerouac’s book, which was published in 1957. Watching Salles’ movie, which, by the way, is technically impressive in production design, imagery, sound and music, you can see why.

Set between the years of 1947 and 1951, “On the Road” centers on a peculiar, bohemian traingle, whose group dynamics was much ahead of its times, announcing de jure and de facto the new American counterculture.

Sal Paradise (fictionalized character of Jack Kerouac, played by Sam Riley), an aspiring New York writer, meets Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady, played by the handsome Garrett Hedlund), just after his father’s death, at what is a crucial and vulnerable phase of his life. (The film offers little by way of family and social background of its heroes).

At that time, Dean is a charming ex-con, married to Marylou (LuAnne Henderson, played by Kristen Stewart), a liberated, sexually seductive femme, who was only 15 at her wedding. Though she divorced him soon after, Marylou continued to be Dean’s mistress for years. (See below)

Bonding instantly, Sal and Dean become (and perceive themselves as) rebels, individuals refusing to abide by societal norms, and determined not to get locked or constricted in any way by white middle-class bourgeois mores and morals.

Severing their ties to family and community, the trio embarks on a journey (actually a series of travels), defined by incessant thirst and endless need for new experiences, be they social, sexual, or political. Their odyssey is both literal and figurative, motivated by an existential search of the meaning of their lives and their new emerging identities.

To that extent, the trio traveled across the vast lands of the U.S., experimenting along the way with alcohol, various drugs, unconventional sex (threesomes), black music, jazz, and other antics.

Dean’s overt bisexuality, effortlessly attracting with his charisma both men and women, doesn’t prevent him from essaying a second marriage, with the calmer and more stable Camille (Kirsten Dunst), and start a family with several children. Nor does it prevent him from continuing to see and travel with Marylou.

The real-life Kerouc was nothing if not ambitious. In a much quoted letter to Neal Cassady, he wrote: “I’ll revolutionize Americn letters and drink champagne with Hollywood starlets.” And while he succeeded with the first part of his desire, he didn’t with the seond one. Shortly after the publication of his book, Kerouac contacted Marlon Brando, then at the height of his stardom, suggesting that the latter buys the screen rights and plays the charismatic Dean to his protagonist Sal.

Contrary to some pevalent myths, “On the Road” was Kerouac’s second novel. The first, “The Town and the City,” was influenced by his heroes, Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, and Walt Whitman, all of whom had celebrated America’s unique folklore, vastness of land, and regional splendor. But Kerouac is still best known for “On the Road,” a book that took him longer to write than he had ever acknowledged publicly (for years, he claimed that he produced the first manuscript in three weeks).

Realizing the inherent difficulties of the text (which many directors still consider unfilmable), Salles has decided to focus his attention on the visual, sound, and music details of his period piece.

End result is a watchable road movie, which is vivid and colorful up to a point, but in no way suggests the excitment, the uphoria of movement for movement’s sake. We seldom get from the film a concrete sense of how the central characters and their various encounters along the road led, directly and indirectly, to the roots of American counterculture as we know it today.