Friday, March 22, 2013

Go West, Young Writer: ON THE ROAD

I, like many bookish English major types I suppose, have some lingering Beat desires to road trip across America and see what inspiration and experience I can stumble upon. To drive across the vast expanse of roadways crisscrossing the United States, open to possibility, ready to gather raw material for projects made up of the written word, has a powerful romantic pull. For me, this doesn’t even have anything to do with Jack Kerouac or his novel On the Road, which has its minor pleasures, but is no sacred text to me. No, this desire within me is inherited from nothing more than the reverberations of the Beat generation’s go-west-young-writer influence, a sense of literary manifest destiny and direction.

So I have both a rooting interest and a disinterest in the film adaptation of On the Road. I’m sympathetic to the impulse behind the plot, while conflicted over the source material’s place in the literary canon. Over half a century after the novel’s release, it is director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera who have brought the book to the screen, finding some compelling episodic energy here and there in this period piece as young writer Sal (Sam Riley) makes his way through American landscapes. The majority of this particular picture, however, is a slog of a road trip. This is a drudgery in which the sights out the windows and the character actors at each stop are meant to carry the day. This is an adaptation that misses the point. For me, what pleasures that can be found in Kerouac’s novel are all in the prose. It’s not what happens, but how it’s recounted through the flavor and cadence of the writing. Of course that’s tricky to capture cinematically, but once removed, all that’s left of On the Road is an opportunity to really highlight how empty a narrative it is.

How strange, then, or perhaps how lucky, to find nice performances scattered throughout the morass of it all. They are occasional crackles of charm in an otherwise overwhelmingly bland trudge. The road takes Sal to Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss and Steve Buscemi, among others doing fine work in underserved roles. Sal is sometimes joined by Dean (Garrett Hedlund) and Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Those two actors in particular are delivering something approaching career highlight work in a movie that plays as if destined to be largely forgotten. Hedlund and Stewart are two performers who, when thrust into big budget material (like Tron and Twilight, respectively) are consistently (unfairly, I would say) derided as one note, stiff and unconvincing. Here, they’re loose – naked and emotional, open and vulnerable, confident and hesitant – in ways that prove their detractors wrong. They’re actors and good ones at that, able to convincingly play blank blockbuster types just as thoroughly as more nuanced character work. They’re rather enjoyable at times, just as the rest of the exceedingly talented cast is putting in agreeable hard work.

But this shouldn’t feel like work. Salles’s picture is trying so hard for freewheeling filmmaking that it’s a strain. The stream-of-obviousness plot stumbles when it should glide, muddles when it should clarify. It wears out its welcome then drifts, feeling repetitive and tiresome until it finally ends. Worst of all, there are dumbly obvious scenes of Sal bent over a typewriter, hammering away at the prose some of us will recognize from the novel. It’s a typically movie portrayal of a writer, scrunched and self-important, as if our Kerouac proxy already knows that he’s writing a book of some historical note. He types as if he’s placing himself on syllabi before our very eyes. But here is a film that is so relaxed and aimless that it fails to work up the energy to make an argument for its own existence, let alone its source materials. It’s just too low-key to do itself justice. 

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