I don’t often find myself running out to see a movie the day it comes out, at least nowadays. But On the Road opened in the Bay Area finally, and even though I knew from reviews that it wasn’t going to knock my socks off, I was there at 1:30 in the afternoon for the first show.
It was an interesting crowd (although “crowd” is stretching it … I’d say there were 20 people tops). There was one youngish woman alone, and two other young women who came together. Everyone else I could see was either an older man on his own (like me), or a couple of older men together. As I noted on Facebook, I think the Kerouac fans outnumbered the Kristen Stewart fans about 10:1. I assumed that most/all of the men were there because they had loved the book, but it’s not like I took a poll, so maybe I was wrong. I mention this because I can’t figure out who the audience is for On the Road, other than people like me who were going to see it, even if it desecrated the book. And really, how many Kerouac fans are still out there?
To get the important thing out of the way, the movie doesn’t suck. I feared that it would, and my relief may lead to my overrating the film. There are things it gets very right, the road itself being at the top of the list. It is generally faithful to its source, although it goes by too fast, by which I don’t mean it feels like a Benzedrine high, but that too much is stuffed too quickly into 124 minutes. It might have played better as a mini-series. Give Salles six hours and he could have had more luck. You spend a lot of time recognizing famous scenes, but this is problematic, since such thinking only reminds you what was left out, and it would have no resonance for people who didn’t know anything about the cultural context of the novel, Kerouac, and the Beats. The movie isn’t a documentary or a history lesson, so any Kristen Stewart fans who wandered in would have to take the film at face value … and it’s not good enough for that.
Which leaves the people who do know the cultural context, and since we can fill in the gaps, we get more out of the movie … it doesn’t suck for us.
Now, if you love Kerouac’s writing, you’ll be at least a bit disappointed. Certain scenes have a real charge to them, but the style of the movie is more contemplative than much of Kerouac’s prose in the novel … it’s more like some of his later work, which is nice, but not really On the Road. The film also fails to reproduce Kerouac’s romanticizing of the “fellaheen”, which is actually an improvement on the original, but which still misses something essential in Kerouac’s work, for better or worse.
The movie has many of the same good and bad points as the novel. There is an immediacy to the characters’ actions, as well as an aimlessness that can’t be covered up with philosophical statements. The novel has no real plot, as befits its picaresque nature. We get a feel for what Sal sees in Dean, but little of Kerouac’s love of his fellow hobos and the joy of eating ice cream.
What happens to the women in the movie is interesting, as well, and once more, it is at least partly an improvement on the book. The primary women characters are still treated poorly when they aren’t being ignored, but Kirsten Dunst as Camille has a strong feistiness in her few scenes … we can see why she throws Dean out of the house, and while Kerouac always seems to disapprove when women get in the way of men having fun, Dunst doesn’t play it that way, nor does the movie. Even better is Kristen Stewart as Marylou. In many ways, she is treated worse than any of Dean’s friends or lovers (or both). But Stewart’s interpretation of the character makes her real, and makes her a survivor. (Stewart has said of Marylou, “there's just a generosity of absolutely everything. Because she wants everything in return she is willing to give you absolutely anything.”) Stewart’s Marylou is the only person on the screen who can match the charisma of Garrett Hedlund’s Dean. She’s the best thing in the movie.
As for Hedlund, he’s fine, a bit less frantic than you might expect, but it’s important to remember, Kerouac was writing about these characters before they became icons. And, of course, when I say “characters”, I mean “real people”, since few writers are as transparently autobiographical as Jack Kerouac. (The IMDB cast listing goes so far as to list the characters’ names alongside the “real” ones, so they have Hedlund playing “Dean Moriarty / Neal Cassady” and Kristen Stewart playing “Marylou / LuAnne Henderson.”) The blend of fiction and non-fiction in Kerouac’s work invites this kind of thing, of course, but it points out the difficulty in making a movie of On the Road in 2012: at this point, Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac, etc.
Ultimately, I was a sucker for this movie. Not as much as I’m a sucker for the novel, but it brought up enough positive feelings that I’m glad I went and saw it on the first day. I can’t recommend the film to people who don’t know the book, and I can’t recommend it to lovers of the book who have a very specific idea of what a movie of On the Road should be. But it was good enough for me. 7/10.