Sunday, April 7, 2013

(Byg)on(e) the Road

     As far as I can tell, this is the second film that Walter Salles has directed in the English language, following the tepidly received feature Dark Water.  I have not seen that picture.  My familiarity with the director derives from his classic Spanish and Portuguese language movies: The Motorcycle Diaries and Central Station.  While On The Road doesn't quite live up to the par set by those films, it is a valiant effort at a very daunting task.
     The picture is based on Jack Kerouac's classic manifesto of the beat generation of the same name, which was long thought to be unadaptable.  To do the impossible, Salles reteamed with Motorcyle Diaries scribe Jose Rivera.  I have only read the first couple of chapters of the novel (and that was back in college), so it is difficult to say for sure if Mr. Rivera hit all the points that fans of the book would have expected him to.  However, I will say that he managed to pen a pretty cohesive story from a source that I recall as being a fairly rambling and stream of consciousness type of book, which is always difficult.  While certainly not the year's most riveting screenplay, On The Road held my interest throughout.
     One thing that often WAS riveting about this movie going experience was the photography from cinematographer Eric Gautier (Into the Wild, Motorcycle Diaries) whose vision of America is quite beautiful to behold.  The landscape of almost an entire country as seen from its roadways must be tough to capture the essence of in a couple of hours, especially one as large and diverse as the U.S.  On The Road is a quintessential story of American culture during a particular slice of time, however, and it is just as much about the places as it is about the people.  I would say that Mr. Gautier did said places justice, to put it mildly.
     On The Road IS also about the people, though, particularly the subculture known as the Beat Generation (or Beatniks).  These were the original lost youth of the twentieth century, a backlash to the almost Victorian repression prevalent in post-war America.  Backlash to repression manifests most clearly along a spectrum that runs from hedonism to a pure yearning for self-expression.  The two lead characters of this story manifest both of these tendencies, yet favor one over the other.
     Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is a writer.  Although he is the "main character", he is more of an observer throughout most of the film.  We watch the other characters through his eyes more than we watch him.  When we are watching him, he is mostly sitting alone and scribbling on whatever scraps of paper he can find.  Obviously, his escape from the chains of societal norms is found primarily through artistic expression.  He records the antics of "the mad ones" in order to show America how the pressure to keep up appearances eats at its youth from within.  Mr. Riley gives a nice, understated performance that is a far cry from the incessant mugging he ALMOST was able to get away with in Brighton Rock.
     He is COMPLETELY upstaged (which is actually appropriate to the characters, honestly) by co-star Garrett Hedlund in the role of Dean Moriarty.  Dean is hedonism personified.  Life within a ten foot radius of Dean is a whirlwind of pot, booze, speed, and sex at all times.  He is Sal's favorite muse, the embodiment of his restless theme.  Any conversation Dean holds with ANYONE is laced with sexual tension, be they man or woman, gay or straight.  Hedlund pulls this off flawlessly, and that's just the beginning of what he captures in this performance.  In his hands, Dean is truly a charismatic force of nature, but sooooo hurting, needy, and desperate at his core.  I'm glad I got to see this film before I put together my Supporting Actor list for the Best of 2012 series (coming soon).
     The cast is chock full of amazing talent including Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Elizabeth Moss, and Steve Buscemi. I don't think I've seen Tom Sturridge in anything since Fairy Tale when he was just a lad, but he is fantastic as Carlo Marx, often fighting Hedlund for focus in their shared scenes.  Kristen Stewart also made the most of her screen time as Marylou; I think this may be my favorite thing that she's done.  Her general wistfulness plays well in this part and I totally bought it.
     The thing that really keeps On The Road quite clearly short of greatness boils down, in this little Movie Frog's opinion, to a matter of timeliness.  The book was quite clearly one of the most innovative and titilating novels of its era, but it is an era long past.  The Hippies outdid the "lost generation" status of the Beatniks only to be one upped by the Punk generation, and so on.  Of course, the "shocking" elements of On The Road (particularly the homo-eroticism) are a huge part of what kept it from being adapted to film decades ago.  Now that you can put such things in movies without limiting their exposure to a very specific segment of the populace, the story has also lost much of its shock value.  It's hard to be horrified at Dean's excesses after watching an episode or two of Breaking Bad.  It's just a fact.  It's not really anybody's fault, and I applaud everyone involved for their efforts.  There is nothing really "bad" about the film at all.  It only disappoints because a story that was really designed to startle the viewer out of their stupor instead lulls the modern audience into a state of nostalgia...4 of 5 stars.

  Related posts: Orange Rock Diaries (Brighton Rock review)

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