Film: The Roads Most Traveled

Most of what I know about the Beats came from the movies.

Those intrepid young writers whose indomitable spirit of adventure took them across the U.S. and, in some cases, across the Atlantic in the late 1940s, have inspired quite a few onscreen renditions of their drug and sex-fueled journeys. Out-and-proud-before-it-became-fashionable poet Allen Ginsberg? Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl was an uneven, formally bold homage buoyed by a top-notch James Franco in the lead role. William Burroughs? I’ll take David Cronenberg’s coolly detached Naked Lunch, starring Peter Weller as the stream-of-consciousness author, over that overpraised, shapeless blob that was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which attempted to adapt Hunter S. Thompson’s exploits for the screen. (Sorry, Mr. Gilliam. You know I love you.)

But what about Jack Kerouac, who wrote the definitive post-WWII Beat Generation chronicle? For decades, On the Road remained the Holy Grail for filmmakers who wanted to capture onscreen the Beatniks’ restless search for their own identity. Could Kerouac’s jazz-influenced prose translate into a worthy equivalent on celluloid? Judging from what director Walter Salles and screenwriter José Rivera – the creative team behind The Motorcycle Diaries – have done to the text, that’s a question that probably should not have been answered by them. They find out the hard way that effectively retelling young Che Guevara’s South American memoirs hasn’t automatically turned then into an authority on this subject. Salles direction suggests he thinks he’s following in the footsteps of Wim Wenders’ Road Movie trilogy. Um, no.

Rather than restore the real names of the key players in the novel’s adventures, the filmmakers stick with the pseudonyms Kerouac’s editors asked him to use. The author’s alter ego, then, becomes Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), who takes off with man’s-man free spirit Dean Moriarty (a stand-in for Neal Cassady, played with intuitive charisma by Tron Legacy‘s Garrett Hedlund) on a series of cross-country treks while he pines for Marylou (Kristen Stewart, barely registering), Dean’s on-again-off-again main squeeze. Their in-your-face queer poet buddy, Ginsberg stand-in Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), scores with a willing and able Dean but yearns for an emotional connection that the attractive object of his affection is not equipped to handle. Actually, that goes for everyone who comes into contact with the magnetic drifter. Hedlund and Sturridge, unfortunately, are all (un)dressed up with nowhere to go.

The actresses fare worse. One may very well argue that On the Road is a boys’ tale in which women play second fiddle to the men’s exploits, but that’s no excuse for the cyphers we get here. Soon enough, Dean sets Marylou aside for Camille (Kirsten Dunst), an enterprising stage set designer who pays a high price for choosing to marry Dean. The Beats keep appearing in each other’s lives, and some credit has to go to Salles and Rivera for giving Kerouac’s loose series of events some narrative backbone. What they don’t quite take into consideration is that Kerouac’s rambling is an important part of his appeal, so more often than not, they wind up flattening and glossing over material that should have popped off the screen

On the Road attempts to celebrate the youthful idealism that led these men to attempt to break from the norm, both in their lifestyle choices and their writing. Alas, all it does is reduce these figures to players in a stale soap opera. The lensing is pristine, the production values commendable, and the execution quite polished. What’s missing, a few fleeting moments aside, is a sense of discovery, the key element that captured readers’ imagination and allowed them to be transported along with these characters. Salles and Rivera, on the other hand, only muster a superficial reading of the text. They mold Kerouac’s declaration of independence into a pretty travelogue. Watching On the Road rarely feels like you’re experiencing these trips firsthand. It feels as if you’ve been handed a packet of postcards.

The Beats are not the only ostracized social group gracing South Florida screens this weekend. The unlikely backdrop for the Australian girl-group saga The Sapphires is the plight of that country’s Stolen Generations, the Aboriginal children who were removed from their families by government and church entities, raised as Caucasian, and encouraged to disavow their cultural roots. Adapted from the 2004 stage play, the film is a pleasant throwback to the middlebrow crowdpleasers Harvey Weinstein used to acquire by the dozen at film festivals in the 90s.

At first, director Wayne Blair threatens to clobber you over the head with the movie’s civil rights-era setting. Archival images of segregation set the unsettling mood for the fact-inspired story of Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), three dark-skinned Koori girls from Victoria who reunite with their fairer-skinned “half-caste” childhood BFF Kay (Shari Sebbens) circa 1968 to take Vietnam by storm as Australia’s answer to The Supremes. Thankfully, with the exception of a few hamfisted depictions of open prejudice, director Wayne Blair, here making his feature debut, keeps the sermonizing to a minimum.

What he should have worked more on is the music. Beloved Motown classics belted out by an Aboriginal girl quartet should have been a slam dunk, but the numbers the group performs in front of U.S. troops who want to take their minds off the Viet Cong remain frustratingly earthbound. Blair does sustain a bubbly sense of joy throughout The Sapphires, but it stops short of fulfilling the promise of a gangbusters premise. What ultimately makes the film more enjoyable than it has any right to be is Chris O’Dowd’s touching, layered performance as Dave Lovelace, the boozy has-been musician who agrees to take the girls on as their manager after seeing them perform a country song at the local talent show he (halfheartedly) hosted. “Ninety percent of all recorded music is shite,” he tells the initially reluctant singers. “The other 10 percent is soul.” When Gail, who lords over her colleagues as the group’s matriarch, questions whether an Irish lad with no rhythm could dig soul music, Lovelace retorts, “My blood runs Negro, woman!”

The Bridesmaids actor, who picked up the Best Actor statuette at this year’s Australian Academy Awards, could have settled for playing the character for easy laughs, but he digs deeper, using his befuddled hangdog expression and hulking, slightly stooped frame to uncover a vulnerability in Lovelace that elevates the familiar material. The Sapphires might occasionally suffer from Dreamgirls envy, but O’Dowd imbues this modestly entertaining musical with enough heart and soul to transcend the clunky civics lesson Blair is intent on teaching.

 The Sapphires debuts Friday at Regal Cinemas South Beach. It is scheduled to slowly open at more South Florida screens over the next few weeks. On the Road charts a one-week trajectory at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com) starting Friday.

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