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The Highwaymen

'On the Road' finally makes it to the big screen

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The one and only time I met Allen Ginsberg, I wasted the moment talking about the 1991 movie of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Ginsberg started the conversation, though, by asking me what I thought of David Cronenberg's work. I said I thought it was expurgated. Ginsberg responded in about these many words: "The movie didn't ruin the book. The book's still on the shelf. Next customer!"

So Walter Salles' long-delayed film version of Jack Kerouac's famed novel On the Road cannot ruin the book, at least by the standards of Ginsberg, who is portrayed in its pages as Carlo Marx (played by Tom Sturridge). Produced by Napa's own Francis Ford Coppola, this film version has been 50 years in the making, not counting some re-editing and time on the shelf after its debut in May 2012 at the Cannes Film Festival.

It's been a long road. Right after the novel's 1957 publication, Kerouac claimed to friends that Marlon Brando was interested. Brando's people passed, however. Years later, Gus Van Sant was interested—a seeming natural to direct the adaptation, particularly in light of My Own Private Idaho.

Rumors blue-skyed Johnny Depp as the Kerouac figure, Sal Paradise, with Brad Pitt as Kerouac's solar deity/car thief Dean Moriarty, based on legendary local Monte Sereno character and live wire Neal Cassady. Billy Crudup and Colin Farrell were also proposed as Sal and Dean. Garrett Hedlund, who eventually got the role of Dean, told me that a version with Paul Newman—at about the time Newman starred in Hud—would have been the one he wanted to see.

BADDER THAN BAD Sam Riley as Sal Paradise and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty in the new film version of 'On the Road.'
  • BADDER THAN BAD Sam Riley as Sal Paradise and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty in the new film version of 'On the Road.'

Director Salles previously made the Great (South) American road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, clearly influenced by the Kerouac frame of mind. Making On the Road, this seemingly unmakable movie, Salles spent many years and what he claims were 60,000 miles finding the kinds of locations Cassady and Kerouac would have seen from their car windows in the late 1940s.

The filmmakers borrowed and rented cars from collectors of the since-vanished Hudson. The California desert town of Twentynine Palms doubled for Silicon Valley's Campbell, where Kerouac once did a stint of manual labor loading boxcars back when the region was devoted to orchards instead of chips.

At long last, On the Road—linked with Twain and Whitman as quintessential Yankee literature—has been achieved with an Argentine director, a Puerto Rican–born script writer named José Rivera and a British actor as Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, star of the Ian Curtis biopic Control).

As Moriarty, Minnesota's Hedlund excels in depicting radiating sexuality and lightninglike motion; he's introduced in a balletic slamming of cars into the tight spaces of a New York City valet parking lot.

Sometimes, the other characters carry baggage from previous acting work. Kirsten Dunst's Camille is based on Carolyn Cassady, a former local who has been trying for decades to set the record straight about her years with Kerouac and Cassady. Camille is introduced by Carlo as "Helen of Troy with a fucking brain." A description like that is hard to live up to, and Dunst must also compete with memories of Sissy Spacek in the 1980 film Heart Beat, with Nick Nolte as Neal and John Heard as Jack.

Kristen Stewart, who filmed this between her two last Twilight movies, is maybe not as naive and sad as the real life LuAnne Henderson, known to posterity as MaryLou, the barely legal Mrs. Moriarty. Decadence is a good look for Stewart—the darker the circles under her eyes, the better she delivers.

Viggo Mortensen plays the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Burroughs character, tending his weird Louisiana citrus farm.

Sturridge successfully avoids Jiminy Cricketism as Carlo. He's a mentor, not a sidekick—the symbol of not just the beatitudes but also the hard work Sal Paradise is going to need to do to become a writer.

The movie won't please everyone, but it's made with freshness and unpretentiousness by a director who blends in autobiographical material with the fiction.

Salles deals with perhaps the number one problem with making a movie of On the Road: that is, Sal Paradise's tendency to adore Dean Moriarty, who, as his fictional name suggests, is both a teacher and a criminal.

The sheltered writer learns from proscribed people—from homosexuals, drug addicts, jazz musicians. Since the film is more intense about Moriarty's own exploits (including a little hustling with a moist-eyed trick played by Steve Buscemi), the movie is ultimately more broadening and frank, believe it or not, than the book.

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