(out of 5)
At long last, after decades of false starts and development hell, Francis Ford Coppola’s dream of bringing Jack Kerouac’s milestone novel to the big screen has come true, with Coppola relegating the director seat to Walter Salles and keeping himself on as producer. The narrative follows the fictionalized members of Kerouac’s world as Sal Paradise (an excellent Sam Riley as Kerouac’s alter ego) witnesses the burgeoning world of post-World War II counterculture come to life through his relationships with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund embodying the omnisexual totem of Neal Cassady) and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge as Allen Ginsberg). The locations never stay the same for long as these men wander the landscape in search of the next indulgence, giving themselves over to the pleasures of sex and substances and justifying their continuing existence in the popular imagination by committing it all to challenging and devastating prose. While the adaptation is faithful and impressive here, featuring terrific performances and gorgeous cinematography, it all feels strangely square. The faded paperback whose words were dagger-like indictments of post-war prosperity, still carried in the back pocket of many a hip and rebellious youth, becomes something conventional and ordinary when placed in the rectangular box of the movie screen, the vintage cars and period clothing tamping down the improvised energy and turning the fiery sentences that were so vivid in the mind into something safe and secure for the eye to see. The film is never boring but it also never quite pierces the surface; these characters have bewitched us for so long because they truly embraced their hedonistic impulses, but what Kerouac also recorded (and what is visible in the film) is that they frequently left others to pay the price for their indulgences. Kristen Stewart as Mary-Lou, one of the women easily utilized by Moriarty’s desires, smiles with her usual pain but here it’s appropriate: women are abandoned, often with illegitimate children, sitting at home with forced, tight grins on their faces while they watch their men go off and have their fun. Salles seems to sense this but, in his desire to keep a sacrosanct novel from being profaned, does not make a pronouncement on his characters’ maturity one way or the other. He is never sure if he admires their youthful folly or judges them for it, and his ambivalence robs the film of any distinct flavour. The parts that work best, those that show his ability to capture the spontaneity of glamorous chaos, are all lifted as English language versions of his much deeper and more politically inspiring Motorcycle Diaries.
Directed by Walter Salles
Cinematography by Eric Gautier
Music by Gustavo Santaolalla
Production Design by Carlos Conti
Costume Design by Danny Glicker
Film Editing by Francois Gedigier