In search of a new world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

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.

On the Road

Sam Ri­ley and Gar­rett Hed­lund in

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