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Film Review: George on On The Road

James A. George, Eywear's film critic, on On The Road

Perhaps more so in America than Britain, most teenagers interested in reading come across Jack Kerouac’s beat-generation memoir-cum-fiction classic novel On The Road.

As seen in the film, Kerouac famously taped several rolls of paper together and churned out his novel in a drug-induced frenzy. The film has been brewing for decades, waiting for the right team, the right screenplay and the right visionary and hence has become overripe and lost its vivacity. I am in very much in two minds about the film and rather unsure whether to condemn this film or to pass it off as a faithful if rather nostalgic adaption, neither of which are really ringing endorsements.

Sal Paradise follows his wild pal Dean Moriarty, played by Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund respectively, as to cure his writer’s block. Cue a lot of drug taking, sex, jazz and driving. Director Walter Salles is no stranger to road movies, the successful Motorcycle Diaries captured the early years of two young men looking for adventure that ultimately discovered people and their deserved humanity, and hence historically grew up to become revolutionaries (one being Che Guevara). This film is also about to men that discover each other and essentially to look inwards – but in less a philosophical sense but a narcissistic way. It may be that the perspective is first-person a lot less often compared with the book, or that such a strong sense of character is condensed down to two hours, but Sal and Dean are not pleasant people to be around.

women used for housing and bedding... hidden undercurrents of misogyny in  the book
The cast is entirely fantastic, even the women that serve next to no purpose other than housing and bedding the two men. It is because all these performances are so engaging that the somewhat hidden currents of misogyny in the book come to the forefront as we are presented with flesh and blood. The reckless hedonist that is Dean is every bit as charismatic as he should be, with a charming signature smile and dirty t-shirts. Sal is played as thoughtfully as he should be and yet still seems believably at ease with the mayhem around him.

The cinematography is wonderful if a little too polished, laden with visual metaphor and beautiful depictions of rural and small town America. The film opens with hasty editing dancing around our characters and their environment and captures the spirit of the book. It even dies down in tempo the way that the book does, but the final scene I personally found dull and tedious in comparison to the heartbreak I felt with the book.

The book was always considered unfilmable, but who could have predicted it is not the lack of a typical movie narrative that weighs against it but rather unlikeable, naval-gazing protagonists. I almost want to praise the film for its faithfulness to the material and its excellent craft. There is a difference between a film that is vain and self-absorbed, and a film about those that are vain and self-absorbed, and the latter is not usually executed as well as this. There is a lot here that is worthwhile, as much joy and adventure as there is neglect and frustration, but hardcore fans of the book should view cautiously.
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