In search of a new world
JACK Kerouac, who defined the beat generation in his seminal book On the Road, published in 1957, was once asked on a television program how long it took him to write it: ‘‘ Three weeks,’’ he replied, but then added that he was on the road for seven years. It was his second novel and he described it in a diary entry in 1948 as being ‘‘ about two guys hitchhiking in California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else’’.
The impact of the book was so extensive that it’s a wonder it hasn’t been filmed before now, but (as Stephen Fitzpatrick explained in Review last week) although Francis Ford Coppola has held the rights since the late 1970s, fashioning a screenplay from this ultimate road trip has proved to be exceedingly difficult. Many writers and several directors have been involved through the years but finally the film has been brought to the screen by Brazilian director Walter Salles and Puerto Rican screenwriter Jose Rivera, the duo who previously collaborated on another road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, about the travels of the young Che Guevara.
It is, in many ways, a bold adaptation and captures many of the elements of the original; but, inevitably, it’s also a disappointment, because On the Road, despite the visual elements inherent in a story of lengthy travels across the US, Canada and Mexico, doesn’t quite manage to capture the particular tone of the original, certainly not in the way Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) powerfully depicted the travels of a subsequent, more confronting, generation of young people.
Yet so much of On the Road is compelling. Garrett Hedlund is perfectly cast as Dean Moriarty, the pot-smoking womaniser based on Kerouac’s friend, Neal Cassady. We first meet him when he opens his door completely naked, and his hedonistic lifestyle plus his attraction to and for women constitutes the core of the movie. Alongside Hedlund, Sam Riley’s Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac is more of an observer, a hanger-on attracted like a moth to Moriarty’s dazzling flame. Homoerotic elements are never far away.
The journey begins in New York in 1947, soon after the death of Sal’s father, a bereavement that casts a long shadow over what is to follow. Rivera’s screenplay is based as much on Kerouac’s ‘‘ scroll’’ — the unexpurgated version of the book — as it is on the published work itself, and the liberating tone is
(MA15+) ★★★ National release
(M) ★★★★✩ National release
✩ uncharacteristic of average American movies, at least these days. Dean not only has a beautiful wife, Marylou, played — with blonde hair — by Kristen Stewart, notable for her role in the Twilight franchise, but is also involved with Camille (Kirsten Dunst), while Marylou is openly desired by poet Carlo Marx, aka Allen Ginsberg, played by Tom Sturridge. Another powerful encounter takes place in New Orleans when we meet Sal’s mentor, Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs, a drug-addicted tiger of a man.
At almost two hours and 20 minutes, the film doesn’t feel too long — indeed, arguably, it’s not long enough to encompass all the themes of the material. Eric Gautier’s very fine widescreen photography follows its characters to many parts of America, as described by Kerouac and vividly brought to life. Yet even at the end, with lives in disarray (‘‘Do you realise how much I’ve given up for you?’’ Camille asks, plaintively) you’re left with the feeling that Salles and Rivera haven’t so much given us Kerouac as they have a lyrical, even nostalgic, look at a group of beautiful outsiders travelling through a conservative but strangely benign era. SIX years ago, in Marc Forster’s Stranger than Fiction, Will Ferrell played a tax auditor who suddenly discovers that his life is being narrated by an author, Emma Thompson, who thought she invented his character. Zach Helm’s screenplay was ingenious and the film was funny and smart. Ruby Sparks is very similar in many ways; it also deals with an author’s fictional character who becomes real, but in this case the invention is the young woman who gives the film its title and who is played by screenwriter Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia).
Ruby is the creation of Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), who has writer’s block. When he was 19 he had written a bestselling novel and he’s still living comfortably from the royalties. But he has been unable to write anything since, and his shrink, Dr Rosenthal — an amusing portrait of befuddlement from Elliott Gould — is no help. He lives alone with his dog since his girlfriend Lila (Deborah Ann Woll) dumped him and more than anything else he lacks selfesteem. In fact, he’s a mess until he follows Rosenthal’s advice and begins to write, on an old manual typewriter, an impromptu portrait of a girl he has seen in his dreams — he calls her Ruby Sparks. And, no sooner has he written about her than she appears, halfdressed, asserting that she’s his girlfriend.
This apparent miracle is just the start of it. Having convinced his sceptical brother Harry (Chris Messina) that Ruby really does exist, Calvin begins experimenting with ways to control her; he soon discovers that whatever he types for her, she does. If he writes that she loves him, she becomes clingy; if he writes that she speaks French, she starts speaking French.
The message, then, is about men wanting to control women, but there’s a bit more to it than that, and Kazan’s witty screenplay takes us to all kinds of interesting places and introduces some fascinating characters, including Mabel (Alia Shawkat), a very upfront fan of Calvin’s work, and the wonderfully named Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan), a lecherous literary agent. We also meet Calvin’s artist mother, Gertrude (Annette Bening), who lives with her latest lover Mort (Antonio Banderas) in a quaintly bohemian setting.
The main focus, though, is on Calvin and Ruby and the tug-of-war between the controlling young writer and his all-too-real creation. If at times the bespectacled Dano evokes the young Woody Allen it’s really not so surprising since this is the sort of scenario Allen might well have imagined. But Kazan deserves full credit for this very droll yet thoughtful comedy — and she makes the most of the role she wrote for herself.
I almost forgot to mention that the film has been directed by the team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who scored a big hit with their very engaging debut, Little Miss Sunshine. They’re obviously having fun with Ruby Sparks and the strange, surreal but oddly touching world created by their young actress.
Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in