19 September 2012

Boys Behaving Badly

The only other Sam Riley film I've seen is the Brighton Rock remake, which was the surprise film at the 2010 London Film Festival. It wasn't a good surprise, but then I didn't get on with the novel on which it is based. I had the same problem with Jack Kerouac's On the Road. I felt that it was a book I should have read, but I just couldn't get into it and had to force myself to finish it when, inspired by spending a month in San Francisco, I finally picked up a copy. Unless it was another San Francisco trip. Either way, pretty much the only thing I remembered from the book was that the characters in The O.C. got it wrong and that it was an apple pie and ice cream tour of America that Sal wanted to do, not a pancake tour.

It seems hard to believe that Walter Salles's movie is the first ever film adaptation of On the Road, but the production notes I picked up at the BFI this evening highlighted a range of rights issues. A recently discovered letter from Kerouac to Marlon Brando indicates the writer wanted Brando to be his Dean, while Kerouac would play Sal. Instead we get Sam Riley playing the observant, long-suffering writer and his charismatic, gadabout fair-weather friend and travel partner, respectively. Kristen Stewart (Marylou) and Kirsten Dunst (Camille) portray the--also long-suffering--ladies in Dean's life; when it suits, anyway.

I almost didn't go to the preview of the film this evening. I was tired, I didn't like the book and after a tough day at work, I wasn't convinced I could keep my eyes open through 2h40 of the Beat Generation gone wild. Actually, though, I quite enjoyed it. Given that the film--like the book--is made up of many distinct experiences as Sal tries to shift his writer's block and, well, find himself, I think they could easily have cut about an hour without losing too much from the overall effect. Hedlund, whom I've liked since Four Brothers, is perfectly sexy and irritating as the selfish, hedonistic Dean, while Riley's brooding and pouting remind me a little of his Brighton Rock role. The women folk are perfectly fine too, although they don't have a lot to do other than get their kit off, pout, get high and be mistreated.

The cameos and minor roles are great though and, I suppose, some of them would probably have been cut if the film was shortened too much. Elisabeth Moss turns up as Galatea, the furious wife of one of Dean's friends, Steve Buscemi as a lonely old man with whom the boys share a ride, and Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen who are, I think, a couple living in the south to whom the lads pay a visit. Adams's lessons on how to please a man are particularly amusing. It's Dunst and Mortensen who get the "with" and "and" credits, respectively, by the way, although the latter only gets about two minutes of screen time.

The cinematography, as you would expect of a travelogue of 1950s North America, is beautiful, jumping between New York in the snow to the lazy summer heat and free living of Mexico. There are lots of long, languorous shots of the eponymous road, boys driving too fast and generally behaving badly, and K-Stew flicking back her newly lightened hair and doing things Bella Swan would never be allowed to do.

I'm not converted enough by the new film to re-read On the Road and I probably won't be rushing out to watch Howl, but I may not be quite so quick to switch off as soon as Kerouac or the Beat Generation are brought up either. I call that a relative success.

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