This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: I was 19 years old, an indifferent college student in Kansas, when I first read Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," and I felt an irresistible urge to head for the highway and hitchhike to San Francisco, looking for Jack. It took me six month to get there, and I rode the Greyhound, but Jack was gone.
After seeing the long-awaited -- at least by me -- movie version of "On the Road," I didn't feel an irresistible urge to go anywhere but home. I don't think it's just my advancing years that kept me in St. Louis. "On the Road," the movie, is moderately entertaining, although way too long (and repetitive) at two hours and a quarter, but it doesn't come close to matching the deeply romantic, deeply American, poetic propulsiveness of Kerouac's novel, which was influenced by Whitman and Thomas Wolfe.
It's the freewheeling lyricism of the writing that has made "On the Road" an American classic, that and its fortuitous timeliness. It may be that "On the Road," like the Proust novel "Swann's Way," which all the characters in the movie seem to be reading, is essentially unfilmable.
The movie tells the story of "On the Road," such as it is -- two friends, fledgling writer Sal Paradise, a lapsed Catholic, and verbally incandescent low-life Dean Moriarity, a self-taught sensualist given to grandiose philosophizing, go back and forth across America in the late 1940s, getting stoned, having sex, digging jazz, working on the railroad, living down and out on mean streets, talking, talking, talking -- but it fails to capture the exhilaratingly romantic spirit of the book.
The film also brushes over the spiritual angle of Kerouac's novel, which a lot of people have missed over the years. Kerouac was on the road in search of kicks, for sure, but he was also on the road in search of truth, ecstatic truth, and the search would lead him to Buddhism.
If you love the book, even as you forgive (or embrace) its sometimes excessive romanticism, you probably should see the movie just for, well, kicks, forgiving it its failures while you embrace its success. Some of the actors are really fun to watch, particularly if you were familiar with the people Kerouac based his characters on.
Viggo Mortensen does a splendid job as the ever-sedated, droll, flat-voiced Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs); and Tom Sturridge dives like an eager, boyishly sexual puppy into the character of Carlo Marx, based on poet Allen Ginsburg. Among the actresses, who include Kirsten Dunst, Elizabeth Moss and Amy Adams, the standout is Kristen Stewart as Dean Moriarity's teenage wife, game for almost everything but yet another betrayal. Get Stewart away from vampires, and she can act, as she also proved as Joan Jett in "The Runaways." Her performance here is both sensual and sad, almost heartbreaking.
Sam Riley is OK as Sal Paradise. Garrett Hedlund, on the other hand, is too laid back by half for Dean Moriarity, based on Neal Cassady. The real Neal Cassady and his non-stop rollercoaster monologue can be seen for real in "Magic Trip," a 2011 documentary about novelist Ken Kesey and his proto-hippie Merry Pranksters. Cassady would have eaten Garrett Hedlund's Moriarity for breakfast.
Brazilian director Walter Salles, who did a fine job of showing us young Che Guevara on the road in "The Motorcycle Diaries," seems never to have found the soul of "On the Road," or if he found it he didn't really know what to do with it. The movie, ultimately, is too small to address Kerouac's paean to post-war America, too small to convey the sense we get from the book of the Keatsian hero sitting in a cold-water flat on the east coast looking west and yearning for "all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it."
What is lost in the movie is "the immensity of it," the vastness of Jack Kerouac's many-peopled dream of America.