ON THE ROAD



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The new movie On the Road is filmed with the energy and chaos of jazz being played by musicians on Benzedrine.  It’s full of jagged rhythms and scenes cut together as if they were half improvised.  It grabs you at first as does the beautiful period detail, with sets and costumes that fill you with a certain excitement the moment you’re confronted by them (production design by Carlo Conti; costume design by Danny Glicker). 
But Benzedrine doesn’t last forever and On The Road quickly crashes into a hung over morning after because this story about members of the beat generation is also about a group of people who think they are interesting, but aren’t (almost never a good premise for a drama).  Actually, it’s a little worse than that.  It’s about a group of people that the screenwriter Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles think are interesting, but neither gives all that compelling a reason as to why we should think so too.
The movie, of course, is based on the popular cult novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac.  It’s a sort of, kind of autobiographical tale in the best Wolfe/Proust tradition (all the names were changed, but apparently not to protect the innocent, because there was never any question as to who was really who in the first place).  The story revolves around an aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Kerouac) who doesn’t have anything to write about.  Into his life comes Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), introduced to him by Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsburg). 
Dean first appears to our naïve little hero fully naked, opening the door having been interruptus in his coitus with his sixteen year old wife, Marylou (how Jerry Lee Lewis can you get).  The idea, I presume, is to show just how free and uninhibited Dean is.  But all it shows is the hypocrisy of the movie and how unfree and inhibited the production is: the confrontational in your face Dean is shown wearing that fig leaf that all movies like this use—he’s seen only from the waste up so as not to offend anyone watching from the safety of their auditorium seats (oh, the irony, the irony).  To the filmmakers’ credit, they do a bit better with the bisexuality, but only by a bit.
Dean is suppose to be a symbol of someone who makes his own morality and lives life on his own terms, fully free of the shackles of 1950’s America.  But I have two issues with this:
The first is that I saw no shackles.  Sal lives in his mother’s apartment (apparently room and board free), with no real job to speak off, coming and going as he pleases, doing drugs, and if he’s not getting sex, it’s not because of society’s priggishness, he’s just not any good at the art of seduction.  When these kinds of characters are portrayed in contemporary films, they usually live in their parents’ basement, playing video games and watching internet porn all day long.  But I don’t think Rivera and Salles see the parallel.  In actually, the only real symbol of the shackles these poor fellows must endure are the tickets they get from highway patrolman when they are racing down frozen highways at breakneck speed, often with the windshield encrusted with ice, robbing them of any visibility (gee, getting a ticket for exceeding the speed limit—those fascists). 
The second issue is how this freedom of Dean’s is defined.  Everyone wants to be Dean, but not because of an existential idea of liberation.  They want to be Dean because he can get his sixteen year old ex-wife to give him a blowjob without his asking while he’s driving a car, even though she knows she’s going to be dumped when he returns to his present wife upon reaching San Francisco.  They don’t want freedom.  They want women to humiliate themselves sexually for them.  And that’s just a whiff of the misogyny run rampant here.
To its credit, the movie ends not with Sal’s embracement of Dean’s credo, but with the realization that Dean is not a symbol of liberation, but an all out sociopath.  At the same time, this realization leaves a bad taste in the way Sal is more than a bit of a dick in his last encounter with his erstwhile hero.
The movie as a whole is not helped by not being particularly well cast.   Garrett Hedlund was building a nice career for himself with strong appearances in such films as the highly recommended Control and the not so highly recommended, but not a complete failure, Brighton Rock.  But here, sad to say, he brings little to the roll of Sal.  Sam Riley as Dean brings about the same.  Neither seems to have the ability to do anything with the characters that’s not already there.  And since nothing is there, well, you know, Q.E.D. and all that.
The supporting cast is filled with tons of cameos, most successfully Elizabeth Moss as a frustrated wife who doesn’t know how to fit into this insane world she finds herself trapped in (true to the nature of the piece, the other women tell her that giving blowjobs will make her happy), and even more successfully, Viggo Mortensen, who steals the show in a few scenes as Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs.  It’s an amazing little snapshot, but part of his success might possibly be that his character is the only one able to cut through the bullshit and call Dean the sociopath he is (finally, you think to yourself).  Amy Adams makes an appearance as the pre-manslaughtered by way of William Tell second wife of Burroughs, but she has nothing to really do and proceeds not to do it.
Walter Salles and Jose Rivera were responsible for the much more successful Motorcycle Diaries, a movie with some similar ideas, at least in structure.  In that movie, likewise inspired by true events, a young Che Guevara and Alberto Granado also hit the road.  But the difference is astounding.  While Motorcycle Diaries is a moving and often powerful movie about two friends who come to realize the breadth of injustice in the world and that they must do something about it, On the Road is about two friends who learn, well, nothing really.  Well, I suppose one could say that Sal learns how to leave a friend sick and dying in the cold while he goes off to exploit him for literary purposes, but I’m not sure I’d brag about that.
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