In On the Road, Walter Salles’ reverent, at times almost painfully faithful adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s birth-of-the-Beat-spirit novel, the characters are always getting high on one thing or another, and I don’t just mean drugs — though they do smoke weed and dissolve Benzedrine into their coffee. They also go to after-hours clubs and listen to twisty ecstatic jazz, their bodies shaking and writhing as the music works its way inside them. They have a lot of sex, too, some of it pretty exposed (hello, NC-17!): On a car ride to nowhere, Sal (Sam Riley), the Kerouac character, who is eager but recessive — a boy-man taking careful stock of everything he drinks in — gets naked in the front seat along with Dean (Garret Hedlund), the Neal Cassady life-force stud narcissist, and Marylou (Kristen Stewart), Dean’s naively game young ex-wife, who is seated, also naked, between the two men as she pleasures each of them with her hands. (I’m not kidding when I say that Kristen Stewart acts this scene very well — for once, she looks more ebullient than cool.) The other high at work is the religion of words. Sal keeps dipping into a volume of Proust, and he types into the night and scribbles in his notebook, doing all that he can to give form to feeling.
The strange thing about the movie, which takes place over several years in the late ’40s and early ’50s, is that even as we’re observing all of these activities, they’re a little hard to connect to. Music and wild dancing, unbridled sex, poetic streams of language: These are all good things, but in On the Road they’re staged with a resoundingly earnest, museum-piece diligence. And so it’s a little hard to experience what the movie wants to give you, which is a contact high. Watching On the Road, there’s a scrappy, lurching party going on — and also a fair amount of heartache — that we’re not so much invited to as invited to stare at, as if this were a hallowed piece of cultural anthropology. And in a sense, that’s just what it is. Salles, the gifted and ambitious Brazilian director (The Motorcyle Diaries), does everything he can to put Kerouac’s novel, which was written in a single month in 1951 (and published by Viking in 1957), right up there on screen. Yet what he doesn’t give us — and what makes the book work — is Kerouac’s bedazzled bohemian swoon. Without it, On the Road is a curiously remote experience, all reason and no rhyme.
The best thing in the movie is Garrett Hedlund’s performance as Dean Moriarty, whose hunger for life — avid, erotic, insatiable, destructive — kindles a fire that will light the way to a new era. Hedlund is as hunky as the young Brad Pitt, and like Pitt, he’s a wily, change-up actor. He gives Dean eyes that glitter with a seductive enthusiasm that borders on being a little cracked. Dean ricochets between the road rambles around America that he takes with Sal and Marylou and his constricted life as a husband and father in San Francisco with his wife, Camille (Kirsten Dunst). A hustler when he needs the money, he smashes through the boundaries of middle-class life because he doesn’t care about them, or even see them. He’s all now now now, his passion sloshing over the sides, but his feelings aren’t just sexual. They’re about his love for his friends, like Sal or Carlo, the film’s Allen Ginsberg character, played by Tom Sturridge with a postwar-Walt-Whitman-in-New-York boyish sweetness.
Kristen Stewart, often topless, makes the darkly bubbly Marylou a convincing prehistory hippie, and Viggo Mortensen amusingly nails William Burroughs’ dry, paint-chip voice in the role of Old Bull Lee, a Burroughs-esque junkie already deep into violence and paranoia. Sal, unfortunately, is one of those movie heroes who’s a wide-eyed observer, and Sam Riley, the British actor who was so riveting as Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control, can’t make him interesting. In On the Road, Riley is like a more circumspect Leonardo DiCaprio, with a sleek, feline innocuousness. He plays Sal as a guy a great many things happen to, but he never really seizes the reins — of his life, or the movie.
In Kerouac’s novel, of course, Sal didn’t have to seize the reins. His voice was there in every word that Kerouac wrote. Without that voice (we hear it in voice-over, of course, but that’s not a movie — it’s like being read to), On the Road is a drama of wisps, anecdotes, hit-and-run encounters, and relationships that last for years yet have all the intoxicating formlessness of wine that has spilled out of the glass. The movie is about people reaching for sensations, experiences — a way of life — that hadn’t been codified in the culture yet. But now, sixty years later, it has been, and On the Road, while the movie may think it’s showing you what things were like before, can’t really imagine it.
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In his early 70s, the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has charmingly re-invented himself as a spinner of chatty international fables. In Cannes in 1997, I was in the audience when Kiarostami accepted the Palme d’Or for Taste of Cherry, and I’ll never forget the disconnect between the man himself — he had a worldly majesty, strutting down the Palais aisle in Beverly Hills sunglasses — and the movie he’d won for, a dour tale of a little man contemplating suicide, told with endless takes of hushed reticence. For a while, the verbal quietude of Kiarostami’s work, and of Iranian films in general, was part of their mystique, especially for Western critics. The films, it was understood, had to speak in code to avoid the meddlesome eyes of the theocratic government, and so Kiarostami seemed an aesthetic-political figure, a hero of understatement.
Now, though, perhaps disenchanted with those restrictions, he has gone off to different countries and embraced a new, relaxed volubility. He did it first in the enchanting, Tuscany-set marital two-hander Certified Copy, which so took aback a lot of the reviewers at Cannes two years ago that it was as if they didn’t quite know if they were supposed to like it (they wanted Kiarostami to put his eloquent muzzle of obliqueness back on). With his latest, Like Someone in Love, he went off to Tokyo to shoot a movie with Japanese actors, speaking Japanese, about a cuddly retired sociology professor (Tadashi Okuno), the college-girl prostitute (Rin Takanashi) he hires for a night, and her explosively angry and deluded fiancé (Ryo Kase).
The movie is playful and makes no easy moral judgments. The professor, played with a soft chuckle by Tadashi Okuno, who spent most of his career as an extra (it shows in his mild demeanor, though not in his expert way of delivering ruefully witty observations), is very courtly to the hooker, who looks like she could be 15, and the film recognizes that he’s a serene but lonely old man who’s still trying to connect to life. His tragic flaw, as it were, is his desperation to bond with this sweetly shallow, oblivious girl not just for one night but as a human being. He wants to counsel her out of her troubles, and though he does so with great care, we know it probably can’t come to a good end. Speaking of which: The ending of a Kiarostami movie tends to exert a quietly monumental significance. It is often the epiphany that completes the puzzle. The ending of Certified Copy elevated its tale of a relationship into a mini Vertigo, but Like Someone in Love, after gliding along with teasing intrigue, is marred by what has to be the most ill-conceived, out-of-tune ending of the director’s career. It’s literally as if he’d used a rock to smash his own movie.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes: