Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac’s alter ego, (portrayed by Sam Riley from Control) befriends wildman Dean Moriarty, real-life Neal Cassady (Tron Legacy’s Garrett Hedlund), following him across the great nation, bathing in booze, women, and jazz.
Along the way we meet Dean’s lover Marylou (Kristen Stewart), his other lover Camille (Kirsten Dunst), and their writer buddies, Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and Old Bull Lee (Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen) respectively. They all get their kicks, with Moriarty at the helm.
Madness. Moriarty’s reckless abandon is at first amusing, energizing, inspiring but eventually, like most good drugs, things go over the edge and desperation sets in. Everyone is in love with the man, but he can’t, won’t be tied down. Money is non-existent and at one point Dean has to ride Steve Buscemi for a ride, which I found to be amusing.
The most important thing about a book to film adaptation is the loyalty to the words the author bled onto the typewriter and this movie is mostly accurate, comparable to adaptations like Fight Club, Trainspotting, and Fear and Loathing. The problem with watching a story like this is it’s one thing to read it, where you can pick out all the romanticism and leave behind the underlying sadness in their search for the ultimate pleasure, but on the screen it’s hard to escape.
But that’s the Kerouac trip: life shown how it really is when lived to the fullest extent: both sad and jovial, all of it fleeting. You can get your kicks, but they will kick back after all.
The movie is gorgeous, captures the time well (as if I can say what the 40s and 50s were like), but it is lacking the one thing that a movie can’t ever hope to capture: the style of the prose. Kerouac is known for a style referred to as poetic prose, the words dance and groove with music and energy and spirit. A romanticism with a burning passion, despite the depravity of the wild youth.
The cast is fantastic, the dialogue sings with bebop excellence, and the cinematography and lighting and all the technical aspects match the mood of the scene, but are non-intrusive as it should be. Like most period pieces, this movie was very expensive to produce, but it all shines.
Amy Adams (Catch Me If You Can) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) also make small, but memorable appearances.
Riley as Sal was a good match, though I kept seeing Trevor Moore from Whitest Kids You Know in a threesome with Tron’s pretty boy and Twilight’s sparkly princess shirtless and sweaty. Stewart did well. She only messed with her hair once that I noticed, she had more than one emotion (vague apathy), and she didn’t shuffle around awkwardly, in fact she carried herself with an enigmatic sexual allure.
Boobop, shebop, hudda-hooda, pow pow. If you don’t hear smooth drums clanking away while Dean rattles on about his hobo pop and his time jumping trains as a kid, always on the go, then there’s something wrong with your rhythm, my friend. And the angry horns blaring away as Marylou double jerks the boys in the front seat of the car speeding off into the land of dissolution and exploding chemical reactions.
“Compulsive psychosis, dashed with a jigger of psychopathic irresponsibility and violence,” says Old Bull Lee, the world’s most prevalent intellectual heroin addict, about good ol’ Moriarty.
It’s all music, man. Sweet, sweet jazz. Catch the song before the last note fades.