Thursday, September 05, 2013

Culture Shock 09.05.13: 'On the Road' is jazz without soul

"Dean Moriarty. Dean Moriarty. Dean Moriarty."

The name repeats, hypnotic like a blues lyric, before be-bopping off on some extended jazz improvisation, à la Charlie Parker. It's the rat, tat, tat of the beat, of the Beat generation, of Jack Kerouac and of his novel "On the Road."

In "On the Road," Kerouac captured a moment in time, both describing the post-World War II counterculture and helping create it. It was the Beats, and it created the Beats. It gave birth to those hangers on who called themselves "beatniks," a term and movement, if it could be called that, that the politically conservative Kerouac couldn't stand. For Kerouac, Beat meant blessed. Beatnik was something else, a corruption.

Postwar writers of a rightward bent, from Robert Heinlein to Ayn Rand, had a habit of unwittingly spawning counterculture movements they didn't like, and sometimes didn't even grok.

Add another to the list of things Kerouac inspired but would probably denounce.

Director Walter Salles is no stranger to "road" pictures, having previously made "The Motorcycle Diaries," a sanitized account of the young Che Guevara's bohemian travels, from the days before Guevara became just another revolutionary butcher with his face emblazoned on T-shirts.

Now Salles gives us "On the Road" (Blu-ray, DVD), a too-literal adaptation of Kerouac's novel that plays all the notes but loses the beat.

Sam Riley stars as Sal Paradise, Kerouac's stand-in and our window into his semi-autobiographical adventures.

After his father's death, Sal decides to hit the road, hoping to find himself, and inspiration to cure his stalled literary career. What he needs is experience, and he soon finds it when he is introduced to Dean Moriarty, ex-con, womanizer and all-around bad example, based on one of Kerouac's Beat associates, Neal Cassady.

Garrett Hedlund ("Tron: Legacy") makes a convincing Moriarty, an infuriating and lovable rogue who is a ladies' man and, in more ways than one, a man's man. Sexuality among the Beats was more fluid than polar.

When Sal and Dean meet, Dean is freshly married to his 15-year-old child bride Marylou (Kristen Stewart). It's not long before Dean and Marylou divorce, but she's still around and still his girl, even after he marries Camille (Kirsten Dunst), a level-headed, no-nonsense woman who leaves you wondering why she ever thought marrying Dean was a good idea. It's all part of Moriarty's mysterious charm, which keeps everyone coming back until they're burned out by the experience.

Sal travels the country, but his travels always circle back to Dean. Either they're on the road together or one is traveling to meet the other.

The tale has resonances with one set in an earlier jazz age, "The Great Gatsby." Think of Dean as a ne'er-do-well Jay Gatsby and Sal as a more likable Nick Carraway. Sal and Nick are drawn to Moriarty and Gatsby, both of whom prove, ultimately, to be hollow figures.

And "On the Road" proves to be a hollow movie. Sam Riley is likable as Sal, but the character is never more than a cipher, and Stewart delivers yet another listless performance, although at least this time her character has a pulse. Only Dunst really makes an impression, briefly, but her character is little more than one of Dean's many castoffs.

Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera give us an "On the Road" that lacks the poetry of Kerouac's prose. It's a dull, repetitive, forgettable travelogue that fails even as a travelogue.

After watching "On the Road," the only trip you'll be inspired to make is back to the rental kiosk.

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