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On the Road

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Walter Salles’ On the Road extends a fragmented blip on the map of American poetry — one that doesn’t necessitate resurrection.

An ode to poet Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, On the Road fails to elicit nostalgia for all things Beat, but not for lack of ambition. Its Americana backdrop depicts the unbridled beauty of the West. The visuals are a testament to a time when these United States were more innocent and collectively curious.

This film is made by a Kerouac fan for the Kerouac legion. It mixes biographical happenings with scenes from the 1957 book of the same name, paralleling Kerouac’s own episodic, fragmented style. On the Road runs Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

As in the classic novel, characters Sal (Sam Riley, Control) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund, TRON: Legacy) must grapple with their own restlessness in post-World War II America, when rigid conformity was embraced and deviance admonished. Sal, Dean and the pre-Beatnik club are on a quest for “truth” and genuine experiences, something they can’t seem to find in the cultural mecca that is New York City.

The boys-only club consists of Sal, Dean and Carlo (Tom Sturridge, Pirate Radio), with Beat-groupie Marylou (Kristen Stewart, The Twilight Saga). Out from drug-induced ramblings and booze-diluted conversations comes false enlightenment, especially via Carlo, the flamboyant open book of a character who flirts with suicide on many occasions. Watching these interactions is equivalent to overhearing drunk, pseudo-intellectual freshmen discussing Philosophy 101.

When the walls of NYC start closing in, Dean drags Sal into his car, prompting the infamous road trip that epitomizes Kerouac’s legacy.

Dean, the backbone of the film, is more of an irresistible force than actual human being. Dean happens to people. He enters the lives of almost every character and just as quickly dissipates after his inevitable discontentment catches up with him, and not one person emerges unscathed. Dean is a serial deserter.

Marylou and Camille (Kirsten Dunst, Bachelorette) experience Dean to the fullest, leaving the latter as a single mother of two while Marylou heads back to reality after the big road trip, alone.

Like his 2004 film, The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles’ infatuation with the endless back-road journey is indicative of the empty but aesthetic endeavor that On the Road embodies. Ultimately leading from one state of ambiguity and isolation to the next, the film actually says more about Kerouac’s elusive place in the American literary canon than the director probably intended.

Executive producer Francis Ford Coppola apparently had been pushing for an adaptation of Kerouac’s novel since the late ’70s, but as watching On the Road makes evident, some ideas simply decay with time. —Aimee Williams

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