Monday, November 19, 2012

10 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching "On the Road"

1. I can't believe it's taken so many decades -- five and a half, to be exact -- to finally commit as landmark a work as Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road to the big screen. It's been many years since I read the book, and I'd forgotten about its homoerotic content, which the film nicely captures. Several times I expected the male characters to start kissing, and Dean Moriarty's declaration of brotherly love to a chilly, suited-up Sal Paradise near the end of the movie, is one of the most touching screen scenes I've seen all year.

2. I swear I didn't plan this: Before watching On the Road (which is already out in the UK but won't be released in the U.S. until December 21), the last film I saw was Moonrise Kingdom. A Cannes contender like On the Road, Kingdom was co-written by Roman Coppola, whose father, Francis Ford Coppola, is one of On the Road's executive producers, and who, according to Wikipedia, once co-wrote an On the Road screenplay draft with his dad. He's also listed in the movie's closing credits.

3. Although I had yet to begin traveling extensively when I read the book, even back then, I could relate to Sal's desire to see the world and meet interesting people in order to fuel his creativity. One of the problems with the way he's portrayed in the film, though, is he's too much a spectator and not enough a participant. Things happen around him; they don't happen to him or because of him. A college professor of mine once said, "To be a good writer, you've got to lead an interesting life." Note that he didn't say, "You have to watch someone else lead an interesting life." Kerouac, for whom Sal is a stand-in, certainly didn't do that!

4. Hollywood must really be impressed by the work of director Walter Salles. (His 1998 film Central Station, another on-the-road movie, is one of my all-time favorites.) How else to explain why On the Road's most-tenured stars -- Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi and an unbilled-on-the-poster Terrence Howard -- signed up for such tiny roles. Mad Men's Moss, all fiery recrimination in her one extended sequence, and Buscemi (thanks to an unexpectedly raw sex scene with Garrett Hedlund's Dean) make the biggest impression.

5. Aside from his obvious appeal to big-name stars, I wonder why Salles got this directing gig. As a Brazilian, he was obviously up to the task of making a film about an excursion through rural Brazil (Central Station), but perhaps for the same reason, he doesn't quite capture the essence of late-1940s Americana, which is so crucial to the tone of On the Road. Hedlund's Dean and Kristen Stewart's Marylou, in particular, seem straight out of 2012, and aside from the jazz music on the soundtrack, unlike those excellent 1920s sequences in last year's Midnight in Paris, very little in the film gives it a strong sense of time and place.

6. What's with Hollywood's hiring of so many handsome young British actors to appear in its movies and TV shows (such as Revenge's Josh Bowman and Nashville's Sam Palladio) talking like Americans. In On the Road, I particularly enjoyed Tom Sturridge, whom I loved so much as Annette Bening's son in Being Julia, and his portrayal of Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsburg). He has a certain delicate sweetness and vulnerability that makes a strong impression, even when he's just on the sidelines observing, which is a crucial characteristic for Sal. Though Sturridge makes a great Ginsburg stand-in, nailing Marx's unspoken lust for wild and wildly unpredictable Dean, I sort of wish Sturridge, or The Amazing Spider-Man's Andrew Garfield, another Brit mastering American accents in U.S. productions, had been cast as Sal instead of Sam Riley.

7. Riley, who, like Sturridge, is a talented Brit offering a more-than-passable American accent, is nice enough to look at, but whenever Hedlund, who makes his first appearance in the film totally nude, is onscreen, it's hard to look at anyone else. Still, as good as Hedlund is, he doesn't own and redefine the character of Dean Moriarty the way Jude Law did with Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It needed to be a little bit more of a star-making turn in order to explain why Sal would be so taken with him.

8. I wonder if Kristen Stewart is even just a little jealous of Jennifer Lawrence. Not only does Lawrence now have her own lucrative franchise with The Hunger Games, but she's also about to score her second Best Actress Oscar nomination -- and a likely win -- for The Silver Linings Playbook, all at the tender age of 22 (and a few months younger than Stewart).

9. My biggest problem with Stewart is that as an actress and as a celebrity, she's too low-energy, which is not a quality that should apply to Marylou. It shouldn't take cheating on your real-life boyfriend to make you seem sort of interesting. At least Stewart's got Robert Pattinson, a good guy who's willing to overlook a little on-the-set fling like the one that got them together while making the first Twilight movie.

10. Watching On the Road is sort of like being on a long road trip -- intermittently exciting, but usually just... driving. It plays more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive story told through a series of incidents. I wish the film had played up the two-guys-and-a-girl angle the way it was done in the first half of The Talented Mr. Ripley (the book, not the 1999 film adaptation) or the 2003 Bernardo Bertolucci film The Dreamers, which is straight homoerotica with a female third wheel at its finest. Like Ripley, like The Dreamers, and like the book on which it's based, On the Road is best when it focuses on the dynamic between the two guys driving it.
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