There are about 45 minutes of a great movie in Walter Salles' adaptation of On the Road, the thinly fictionalized Jack Kerouac novel/memoir that helped define the beat generation of the early 1950s. These occur mainly at the beginning of the film, informed by the writer protagonist's narration, when the characters are first meeting up and hanging out, pinging ideas, dreams, and creative energy off of each other like random electrical charges, and in the final reflective scenes, when the writer lets go of his last illusions and starts hammering out Kerouac's spontaneous "bop" prose on the typewriter.
Which is to say the film is most effective when it sticks to Kerouac's voice, his thoughts and observations on the generation his book came to symbolize. In between these two poles of interest, however, lies the bulk of Salles' film, an increasingly frantic and pointless gallop back and forth across continental North America.
Yes, it successfully mimics the characters' headlong charge in pursuit of experience (i.e.: sex, drugs, jazz, and alcohol), but the more of the book's physical territory Salles covers—New York City, Nebraska, New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver, Mexico—the less focused the film's ideas become. Without the transformative power of Kerouac's words, we're stuck watching repetitive scenes of frenzied partying, which soon pales as a spectator sport.
Aspiring writer (and Kerouac alter-ego) Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is living with his French-Canadian mother in New York City when mutual friends introduce him to wild man Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a thinly-disguised version of Neal Cassady. Sam is quickly spellbound by Dean and his teenage bride, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), their freewheeling lifestyle of booze, dope, and sexual ménages. (Read complete review in this week's Good Times.)
|The real-life Neal Cassady and children Jami, John and Cathy|
Meanwhile, if you can't get enough of the beats, plan to attend the 7 pm show of On the Road at the Del Mar on opening night, this Friday night (March 22). After the show, there will be a Q&A with the real-life Neal Cassady's daughter and son, Jami Cassady Ratto and John Allen Cassady to discuss their father, the legacy of Kerouac's seminal book, and the influence of the Beat Generation on the Santa Cruz cultural landscape.
Check out the Nick/Del Mar website for the real lowdown.