"On the Road": What took it so long?

Bennett Cohen | March 22, 2013 | Lifestyle Story Culture

For 55 years, On the Road had the distinction of being among “the greatest movies never made.” Forget its influence on writing (huge), or generations of young people (even bigger). When it comes to film and TV, every road story—from the long-ago series Route 66 to Easy Rider and countless more—owes a debt to the 1957 classic.

Not that people didn’t want to make it. Jack Kerouac himself offered Marlon Brando the role of Dean Moriarity (Brando never wrote back). Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights more than 30 years ago, but even he stalled out. Now, finally, the film has arrived, with Walter Salles directing a script by his Motorcycle Diaries collaborator Jose Rivera, and Coppola and his son Roman (Moonrise Kingdom) serving as producers.

Actually, it arrived in Europe last spring. I saw it at Cannes, where it was up for the Palme d’Or. That same day, May 23, 2012, it was released in France, Switzerland, and Belgium. Then, in December, On the Road was released in a few U.S. cities, to qualify for Oscar season. Only now, three months later, is this quintessentially San Francisco work finally in Bay Area theaters. And the question is— why?

One possible answer: It’s not very good. In fact, it’s it’s a snooze-fest. And that’s despite the fact that there’s so much naked flesh—in bedrooms, in cars, in tents, on dance floors. For a while, an NC-17 rating was said to be a real possibility. (It's rated R.)

How could so much driving, drinking, drug-taking, and sex—did I mention the sex?—manage to be so boring?

1. The Direction
Walter Salles is an auteur who shapes and controls every aspect of his work. It’s his “vision," but sadly it’s the wrong vision when it comes to On The Road. In the book, the driving, drinking, drug-taking, and sex were plentiful but not purposeless; they were part of a voracious search for meaning. Here, the only objective driving the action is the Paradise/Kerouac character’s desire to write, to find “a voice.” Talk about passive—and dull.

2. The Script
Jose Rivera’s plays are poetic and dreamlike, with beautiful language and affecting characters; his script for Motorcycle Diaries was nominated for an Oscar. But On the Road, with its gobs of voiceover narration from the book and little else, feels like it was barely written at all. The only emotion other than desire comes in the form of an occasional blow-up from the women who’re abandoned along the way. In the book, the romance between Paradise and Terry, a Mexican-American farmworker he lives with for a while, is a gorgeous sidebar of a tale, sweet yet sad, making you wish it could have worked out for them. Here, it’s a few nights in bed. Who cares?

3. The Lead Actor
With one exception, the acting ranges from good to great. But oh, that exception. Dean Moriarity may be the book’s most charismatic character, but Sal Paradise is the lead, the one who the drives the story forward. Or doesn’t. Sam Riley feels miscast as the restless, driven Paradise, coming off as frustratingly passive and amplifying the other weaknesses of Salles’s vision.

4. The Weird Take on Homosexuality
Other reviewers have written about the creepiness of Steve Buscemi’s character, who picks up Paradise and Moriarity only to be seen through a cracked door, bare-assed, with a naked Moriarity/Garrett Hedlund above him, getting screwed for $20. Here’s the thing: the scene’s not in the book—not the screwing, not the seedy approach to homosexuality. In the book, they get a ride from the Buscemi character, who admits he’s gay. But when Moriarity suggests sex for cash, the Buscemi character isn’t interested— and it never happens. Nor is Paradise repulsed by it, as he seems here.

All that said, here are four reasons why you might want to see it anyway.

1. The Sex, Sex, Sex
Hedlund and Kristen Stewart are two of the hottest young actors in Hollywood, and there’s a lot of both on display. Not to mention Riley, Kirsten Dunst, and others. At least it offers some moments that are easy on the eyes.

2. The Music
The jazz score, by Gustavo Santaolalla, is flat-out great. As passive as the film seems, the music is just the opposite, drawing you in and carrying you along in ways you only wish the movie would.

3. The Acting
There might be a hole in the center, but there is some stellar acting around the edges. Viggo Mortenson seems to channel William Burroughs, and Hedlund and Stewart give fearless, soul- and body-baring perfomances.

4. The Icon Factor
This isn’t Visions of Gerard, or Big Sur, or even The Dharma Bums (other Kerouac novels, in case you’ve never heard of them)—this is On The (f-ing) Road!—a literary behemoth so influential, and so identified with San Francisco, that it’s drawn countless souls into hajj’s here since the late 1950s. This is the movie those who love Kerouc have been waiting their whole lives for. And odds are, they’ll see it whether they love it or not. Some may see it twice. Maybe even me.

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