Issue:  Vol. 44 / No. 42 / 16 October 2014
 
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Road warriors

Film


Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty in director Walter Salles' On the Road.
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It took one madman almost a decade to join up with another, and still another decade to get the essence of their inscrutable bond and the adventures it inspired into a publishable book. Called a novel for lack of a more accurate term, Jack Kerouac's On the Road has, since 1957, excited millions of readers with its unparalleled account of an America still hung over from the Great Depression.

On page 44, Kerouac's narrator/alter ego Sal Paradise observes his best buds Dean and Carlo sitting "on the bed cross-legged and [looking] straight at each other. They began with an abstract thought, discussed it; reminded each other of another abstract point forgotten in the rush of events.

"'We'll just have to sleep now. Let's stop the machine.'

"'You can't stop the machine!' yelled Carlo at the top of his voice.

"'I walked out and took a trolley to my apartment, and Carlo Marx's papier-mache mountains grew red as the great sun rose from the eastward plains."

You don't have to venture far into this mind-bending American original to grasp how hard it would be to dumb this sucker down into a mere movie. Some of the best moments in the film are Sal alone, incensed with himself for wearing a most impractical pair of shoes in a torrential downpour; and Sal observing a Mississippi-born hobo tenderly mothering a mysterious blonde teen boy on the back of a truck hurtling through the night.

Director Walter Salles proved he was up to creating a road-buddy classic with 2004's The Motorcycle Diaries. In it, Gael Garcia Bernal escaped the cliches of Che Guevara. With Diaries, Sales had the benefit of Latin American locations largely unchanged both in their natural beauty and wretched poverty from 1952, when Guevara and his best friend ventured forth on an unreliable bike.

With On the Road, the America Kerouac crossed in the late 1940s with his buddy Neal Cassady, at nearly 100 m.p.h. in a sleek Hudson Hornet, has vanished, physically and spiritually. Today's young fans of the book would likely be more than a little put-off by their heroes' feckless self-absorption, casual criminality and utter disregard for the woman they picked up and dropped off along the road with gleeful abandon.

Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera are more successful with certain episodes than with the essence of one of modern America's most misunderstood classics. For queer fans, there's the erotic slapstick of Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean finessing the randy advances of Steve Buscemi's "Tall Thin Salesman." Garrett Hedlund scores points as the singularly focused Dean, getting oomph out of the Hudson as if it's an early prototype NASA rocket, intimidating his passengers into testy silence as they pillage the countryside for free gas and groceries. Despite a formidable female cast – Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst – the Beat women don't truly register as autonomous characters because the Beat men were the original modern "boys' club," without as much as an embryonic awareness of their women's needs.

The missing link here – and the problem that kept producer Francis Coppola from getting a filmable script for decades – is a coherent and dramatically accessible sense of what Sal and Dean, Jack and Neal, two resolutely straight fellows, saw in each other, needed from each other and ultimately gave each other. While Salles and Rivera conveyed the political awakening of Che, the largely interior ego battles between these two damaged if charismatic souls elude them, and therefore the movie never truly lands.

We know that Kerouac admired Cassady for his prodigious carnal appetites and genius-level driving skills, and we know that the unschooled ex-con Cassady envied Kerouac's literary skills. Maybe a genius actor like Marlon Brando could have bridged this gap in sensibilities; Hedlund and Riley can't, or at least don't.

In their oral biography of Kerouac Jack's Book, Barry Gifford and Larry Lee quote one of Kerouac's closest friends, the poet John Clellon Holmes, on the peculiar mix of success and soul-destroying tragedy the publication of On the Road brought him.

"Most books that come out are contained. That is, people say, 'I want to read that book.' But what happened when On the Road came out was, 'I want to know that man.' They just wanted the experience, and all this was profoundly confusing to a guy like Kerouac, who was a terribly simple and conventional genius. This so discombobulated him that for the rest of his life he never, never got his needle back on true north. Never."

James Franco as Oz the Great and Powerful.

Oz the Great and Powerful Why would Hollywood make a non-musical prequel to The Wizard of Oz? Only the bean counters at Box Office Mojo know for sure. This very dull movie from the usually reliable Sam Raimi is a fiasco, with none of On the Road's good intentions.

Beginning like Dorothy in the original in a square-screen, B&W Kansas, the movie gets off to a wobbly but diverting start as the dude who's destined to become the Wizard, a petty carnie flim-flam man (James Franco), prepares to flee his enemies with the assistance of his nervous assistant (Zach Braff). Dude hops into a hot-air balloon and hits a tornado. Whereupon the screen expands, turns into color, and the movie collapses like a clumsily conceived upside-down cake.

Franco delivers a performance that varies between shambling goofball and emotional narcoleptic. The only saving grace is the wonderful Michelle Williams as a very good if lonely witch. And to top it off, the ultimate bummer: no singing little people.

 






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