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On The Road

Do young people still read Jack Kerouac? Even in my college days he had come to seem like a relic from a distant past, no longer novel or shocking in a world that seemed to have put to rest all the proprieties he wanted to escape. And of course if you don’t read On the Road, at least for the first time, when you’re young, there’s no point in reading it at all.

A film version of it has been years in coming. Kerouac himself wanted Marlon Brando to star in an adaptation in the late 1950s, though clearly that would never have worked. Francis Ford Coppola obtained the rights in the late 1970s but was never able to get it off the ground.

Sixty-two years after it was written, it has made it to the screen, godfathered by Coppola to Walter Salles, the Brazilian filmmaker whose 2004 The Motorcycle Diaries seemed as inspired by Kerouac as it did by the episodes in the life of Che Guevara it depicted. It has an able and saleable cast—Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, and Steve Buscemi—and is inarguably a labor of love. Salles and his team spent years scouting for locations, going over the routes Kerouac and his travelling companions took, eventually shooting in nine states (hitting every time zone) and Canada, Mexico, and Argentina. He and scripter Jose Rivera do as good a job as can be expected of condensing the episodes (you can’t really call it a plot) of Kerouac’s book, including the steamier passages that were deleted until the unedited “scroll” text was published in 2007.

Yet for all its scope and energy, the film never develops a life of its own. Without reference to the book, it seems like a meandering parade of drugs, drinking, and debauchery pointing to some direction but never quite getting there. It shows the adventures that Kerouac had, but that was never so important as how he felt about them, which is what the film largely lacks.

Watch the trailer for On The Road

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