‘On the Road’ Review
Somehow I made it through four years of high school, four years of college, and ten years since without ever reading Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road.' I'm not sure whether that makes me hopelessly unqualified to review the new movie adaptation of it -- because I can't tell you how faithful it is -- or better suited than most because I can judge the film as a film and not as a sacred cow of literature offered up for slaughter to the great, greedy god of cinema. And as a film, it feels like the CliffsNotes version of a great book; sketchy and incomplete. That's probably the film's destiny, too: to be watched by procrastinating teens the night before a big exam in lieu of reading the real thing.
As in the novel (so I'm told), the film follows the itinerant wanderings of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund). These fictionalized stand-ins for Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady crisscross America all through the late 1940s and early 1950s: New York to Denver to Mexico and many places in between. Along the way copious amounts of liquor are consumed, even more copious amounts of drugs are smoked, and they and their female counterparts engage in every possible sexual permutation imaginable. Dean, an insatiable hedonist, screws his ex-wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Marylou, constantly sex-crazed, gladly screws Sal as well. Sal, the most conservative of the bunch, contemplates screwing both Dean and Marylou at the same time anyway. Later, the trio will engage in a three-way while seated naked in the front seat of their car as it barrels down the highway.
Dean has another wife, a current one named Camille (Kirsten Dunst), who he alternately dotes on and ignores in favor of Marylou or any other woman he can get his hands on. Other famous authors pass through: Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx (a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg), and a drawling, gun-toting Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs). As Sal and Dean travel the country, Sal takes copious notes on everything -- in journals, on the backs of flyers, anything he can get his hands on -- in preparation for writing the book that will eventually become the basis for the film we are now watching.
That book became a cultural landmark for its free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness use of language, something that is surprisingly absent from the film version. Riley provides some voiceover, mostly in the opening and closing scenes, and there are a few scattered "dig"s or other bits of '40s and '50s lingo, but otherwise the dialogue in this 'On the Road' is totally unremarkable. Its far more florid in its use of imagery of the American West, which looks expansive and glorious enough to convince anyone that a few years riding the rails might not be a bad thing. The closest thing to improvised, off-the-cuff prose are jump cuts that send scenes spiraling off on jagged tangents with staccato editing rhythms.
'On the Road' director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera previously teamed for 'The Motorcycle Diaries,' another movie about the pleasures of male bonding and aimless journeys. Sadly, the film's depictions of Sal, Dean, Marylou and the rest don't always make them ideal traveling companions on this particular adventure. Though Hedlund is miles better here than in 'TRON: Legacy,' his Dean is still a bit too much of a mess and a cad to inspire the sort of fraternal devotion he seems to draw from everyone around him. And Riley's Sal, perpetually scribbling away, is an absence at the film's center. As Marylou, Stewart at least gets to look a little less sullen and forlorn than she has in every other movie she's ever made, but even at her best, the character still feels like a walking, talking sexual fantasy.
Kerouac's 'On the Road' influenced generations of writers and artists. Don't expect this film to do the same. Don't even expect most people to remember it a few weeks after they see it. Even if they watch it to cram for a test.
'On the Road' hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles on December 21st and in theaters nationwide in January.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’