Most readers of this review will have no recollection of Jack Kerouac, but his coining of the phrase "beat generation" has been part of the English lexicon for decades. Kerouac, a writer, was a nonconformist at a time in American history when nonconformity was suspect. The Cold War years of the 1950's were fraught with fears of Russian aggression and communism, stoked by the outrageous agenda of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. At the age of 29, Kerouac decided to travel around the country, and in 1951 he published what is considered a critique of American culture called "On The Road". The people and places he encountered are now a movie by the same name.
Directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries", 2004, starring Gael Garcia Bernal), "On The Road" is not a film for the masses. The story is laced with sex, drugs and nudity, but it is a capable character study of a group of young friends who could be part of any generation. The movie was nominated last year for the Palme D'Or at Cannes, that prestigious festival's highest award. And the National Board of Review named "On The Road" one of the Top 10 independent films of the year.
Sam Riley stars as Sal Paradise (Kerouac's alter ego) and Garrett Hedlund is Dean Moriarty (portraying Kerouac's real life friend Neal Cassady). Kristen Stewart is Dean's conflicted girlfriend, Marylou, who idolizes Dean even as she dreams of being a housewife and mother.
As for Dean, he is a self-indulgent, womanizing, pot-smoking bisexual whose idea of dressing up is a clean white T-shirt. He is certainly charismatic, but his self-destructive tendencies lead him onto an opposite path that Sal follows. Sal, meanwhile, is portrayed as the common sense conscience of their friendship, which is severely tested by the film's conclusion.
While it is Sal and Dean's relationship that drives the movie, there is a wealth of interesting characters that come into and out of their lives. In Kerouac's own words, "the only people that interest me are the mad ones". Some of these "mad" individuals are portrayed in the film by celebrities in cameos (Terence Howard, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss) or extended cameos (Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi).
Screenwriter Jose Rivera, who collaborated with Salles on "The Motorcycle Diaries" and wrote the underrated "Letters to Juliet" (2010), adapted his script from Kerouac's own book. Kerouac, himself a heavy drinker which contributed to his death in 1969 at age 47, was denied a financial windfall when his agent nixed a deal with Paramount. He was offered $110,000 for the screen rights to his book (over $750,000 today), and Marlon Brando was to play the role of Dean. However, the agent held out for more money, and the deal was never finalized. So it is primarily his novel "On The Road" for which Jack Kerouac is immortalized, and now the film version is finally a reality.
Opinion: Mild See It Now!