Film Review: On the Road

In this long-awaited adaptation of Jack Kerouac's iconic novel, the period detail is perfect and the lensing nails the novel's frenzied rhythms, but a literal-minded approach and miscast lead stall this baby before the finish line.

2012 in film could be seen, among other things, as the year of the challenging adaptation. In Cloud Atlas, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer brought David Mitchell's omnibus, time-traveling novel to the screen (and for their trouble nabbed Time's “Worst Movie of the Year” award). In Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright dodged the standard costumer to audaciously recast Tolstoy's work as theatre and performance piece, bringing visual verve and fresh excitement, in this critic's view, to the venerable classic.

Now Walter Salles has attempted arguably the year's most daunting adaptation: Jack Kerouac's iconic On the Road, touchstone for a generation in thrall to the Beats and still a milestone of American culture. Chief among the film's attractions is the manic camera of the great DP Eric Gautier, which mimics Kerouac's racing, free-associative prose style. Still, Kerouac's road trip veers off-course due to wrong-headed casting of the two key characters. The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles' affecting road movie and coming-of-ager about Che Guevara, felt vivid and immediate. But in this stateside journey, the filmmaker's literal-minded approach to Kerouac's song of the open road paradoxically makes the antics of its characters seem oddly quaint and recessed in history.

On the Road
famously follows the story of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a young writer whose life is spun around by the arrival of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a free-spirited con man and Westerner, and his girlfriend Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Crisscrossing the country, Sal and Dean venture on a quest for freedom from America's conformist post-World War II culture, a search for the unknown and their authentic selves, and what they revere as pure “experience.” Along the way the duo encounter a string of badass characters from the Beat circle: Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen, amusingly channeling William Burroughs); Camille (Kirsten Dunst), Moriarty's misguided wife; Carlo (Tom Sturridge, a dismayingly miscast Allen Ginsberg); and other chicks (played by Amy Adams, Alice Braga and Elisabeth Moss) who Dean and his druggy crew bang and leave as easily as they say, “Fill ’er up.”

Kudos are deserved for the film's profusion of ’50s period detail. Dean drags around like a Linus blanket a dog-eared copy of Proust in the now-defunct Modern Library edition. Pinned to a wall is the famous photo of Rimbaud, idolized by Allen Ginsberg. The score captures the rhythms of jazz and bebop glorified by Dean and friends, while Gautier's lensing is the visual equivalent of a saxophone riff. In a memorable set-piece in a club, Dean dances himself into the sort of ecstatic trance Kerouac and the Beats cultivated. Salles rightly underscores the man love that dominates Kerouac's novel and world, particularly the romantic friendship between Sal and Dean, though he neglects Carlo's (Ginsberg's) infatuation with Dean. The women were disposable and peripheral to the great circle jerk of Kerouac and friends.

Problem is, the principals burn on low when they should be white-hot. Riley and Hedlund are competent and attractive, yet neither offers the magnetism of the original “mad ones”; most crucially, Hedlund's Dean lacks the out-of-control charisma that could have turbo-powered the film. Much has been made of Kristen Stewart's portrayal of go-along girl Marylou, perhaps because the star delivers a drugged-out grunge-queen, but the portrait lacks inflection and offers no insight into why female sidekicks joined the Beat project.

As well, Salles focuses far too often on Sal typing or scribbling feverishly on scraps of paper, hardly camera-worthy acts. What goes down in Kerouac's prose—Bull Lee shooting up with his child on his lap—just looks sordid onscreen, while Dean's verbal rhapsody on an orgy with a black hooker and friends is positively cringe-making. What played as shocking and outré in the ’50's now seems warmed-over and tasteless. Moreover, the outrage expressed by the female characters feels unearned. “You're a liar!” Camille screams at Dean. Well, of course he is, and worse. Finally, On the Road feels overlong; how many ways can you show a car bombing down the highway? Though the film is an honorable, informed attempt to transcribe an American classic and capture youthful frenzy, Salles fails to find a visual correlative for Kerouac's poetry and celebration of the “purity of the road.” This baggy monster overrides the mark.