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Movie Review: On the Road

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It's taken me a while to get around to it, but I wanted to offer a nod of approval for Walter Salles' On the Road, which came out in limited release at the end of 2012.

Dismissed by some critics for being too vague in its storytelling, Salles' film captures exactly the crazy exuberance for living that Jack Kerouac craved and sought as he crisscrossed the country gathering material for and writing his breakthrough novel in the late 1940s (before it was published in 1957).

Actor Sam Riley, playing the Kerouac stand-in character, Sal Paradise, utters Kerouac's immortal line at one point: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars..."

Salles, who attempted something similar with The Motorcycle Diaries, isn't aiming for a hipper-than-thou homage to Kerouac. There's no name-dropping, no nudge-nudge to the audience ("See - he's supposed to be a stand-in for Allen Ginsberg - and there's William S. Burroughs!").

Instead, he focuses on the tone of what Kerouac was really writing about: the urge for experience that drove the young writer to surrender himself to the highway at the drop of a hat. But he was also writing about the people he knew, characters who stood in for such famous friends as Ginsberg, Burroughs and, of course, Neal Cassady, immortalized in his novel as Dean Moriarty.

These men seemed to radiate the life force to the young, would-be writer, who traveled with or to them over the course of several years. He and his friends drove back and forth across the country in the years before interstate highways, in increasingly rickety cars, with pennies in their pocket, cadging meals and smokes and drinks. They fell in and out of jobs and love and trouble, looking for an authenticity that the increasingly suburbanized America was losing.

Kerouac never defined it as such, yet it was the same spirit that has fueled bohemianism from the 19th century forward: a search for a kind of transcendence and freedom that mainstream culture can't provide and often won't allow. It has taken various shapes as it migrated from the Beats in the 1950s through the counter-culture in the 1960s. It's not an articulated ethos or philosophy in Kerouac's book or Salles' movie, just this vague yearning for something different, something true, something that values the artistic impulse over the everyday work ethic.

Salles finds that most prominently in the character of Dean Moriarty, embodied here by Garrett Hedlund. Dean and Sal become instant pals, fast friends, road companions. Dean has the wired energy, that urge to experience every possible sensation in the universe - and passes it on to Sal. Which doesn't track particularly well with day-to-day expectations with which most people approach their lives.

Hedlund's Dean is a child of Bacchus, a lover and roisterer with no clear goal in mind other than more, faster, now. Whether he's driving a car, dancing wildly, making love or just vibrating to the music of Charlie Parker and Slim Gaillard, he seems to be channeling the energy of the universe - but he's not grounded enough to keep from being slightly fried by his role as conduit.

On the Road reminds me of films like Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, in its refusal to let exposition delineate its emotional landscape. It also calls to mind David Chase's recent Not Fade Away, for its willingness to trust the audience to keep up with subtle, sometimes jumpy storytelling. Whether you find it in a theater or on video-on-demand, it's a film that should beguile anyone with even the slightest tendency toward being a seeker -- and any fan of the book who wants to see a figurative (rather than literal) translation to the here and now.

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