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Friday, April 05, 2013

BFF Beatniks: A Film Review of "On the Road"

from the Honolulu Weekly:


Kristen Stewart makes up for Twilight, Garrett Hedlund gives good Gosling.

BFF Beatniks

YOLO Neal Cassady pushes On the Road into a groove.


Going in, the main question in my mind was “How long before the alt music kicks in and a bottle of Budweiser and a Ford 150 show up?” Product placement, I figured, would be where this noble attempt at getting Jack Kerouac right would meet its fate. How can Hollywood resist the mother of all road movies?

That was before the first orgy, or let’s just say threesome, between the Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady character (Garrett Hedlund, who makes a quantum leap from Tron), the proto-gay Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg character (poorly written, then underplayed by Tom Sturridge) and that adorable Twilight girl, Kristen Stewart, as Marylou, who keeps stealing scene after scene with her tousled hair and good-girl-gone grin. On the outside looking in is poor wistful Sal Paradise (Kerouac via Sam Riley, whose caved-in expression recalls, in a good way, Kyle McLachlin’s in Blue Velvet).

Even if you don’t know who Neal Cassady was, or Allen Ginsberg, or, God help you, Jack Kerouac, this could still be a movie for you. You might have had your own Dean Moriarty in your life–the kind of no-rules no-fear YOLO BFF who lives and loves without a care for what society thinks and takes you along for the ride. He’s a sociopath, but such a fun guy you forgive him again and again–until the day you grow up and leave him behind, just like that, and he’s the one out in the cold. For you and your now-bourgeois friends, he’s that dude you talk fondly about, knowing he’s out there living on the street, sleeping on a cardboard box over a subway grate.

Even if your tolerance for self-absorbed silly-sounding young men is low, you can still gorge yourself on this Franco-Brazilian venture, produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope after a 34-year-journey and a couple of collapsed productions. What we have here, in addition to a cast of committed Kerouaceans (Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen as William S. Burroughs) is some extraordinary cinematography, profound American landscapes as you’ve rarely seen them, a couple of nice recreations of the bebop jazz scene ca. 1949, lots of early-adopter drug abuse and lots more sex–straight, bi and even, Lordy, a glimpse of the famous buggery scene editor Malcolm Cowley and Kerouac decided to cut from the published manuscript. That takes balls, so to speak.

So there’s something for everyone. The first 20 minutes feels shaky, not helped by what feels like the obligatory voice-over of the future famous writer. It could be John-Boy Walton. Then something happens to the rhythm and we realize this was Brazilian director Walter Salles’s (The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara’s own On the Road) intention all along: to let us feel the callow yearning for Real Experience of the inexperienced, brave-talking Columbia students (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lucian Carr). Enter Professor Moriarty: con man, thief, automobile ace, sexual decathlete. The roman candle is lit.

Look, folks, go see this for the Neal in your own life. Without Cassady, there might not have been any Beat movement, hence no Hippies, no Summer of Love, no Grateful Dead bus road trip (a Cassady-led replay of On the Road, well captured by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), no counter-culture, no Barry Obama playing cool jazz riffs on political discourse to the maddened hepcats in the crowd. Neal gets his movie here. And it’s now our movie, too.

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