ON THE ROAD
Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by: Jose Rivera (screenplay), Jack Kerouac (book)
Starring: Garrent Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Terrence Howard, Elisabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi, Alice Braga
We all have those kinds of charismatic folks in our lives that when they’re around, you’re surrounded with warmth. And when they’re gone, well, you’re left out in the cold. Such is life for our narrator in director Walter Salles’ adaptation of beat poet Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD. While this is exquisitely shot and rendered, the narrative stands out as lackluster compared to the stunning visuals.
Our journey – which spans the course of three years – begins when young writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) meets his magnetic muse / best friend Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund) in New York City. The year is 1947 – a time rife with new music, mind-altering drugs and boundary-pushing ideals. We’re told by Sam’s incessant narration (which bibs and bobs around the story like a secondary jazz score and – thank God – fades by the end of the feature) that Dean’s just gotten married to 16-year-old Marylou (a miscast Kristen Stewart). And from the looks of it, we can sense Sam and Marylou will be fucking by film’s end. In the first of many physical (and emotional) back-and-forths for antsy Dean, the newlyweds move back to Denver. However, it’s not long before Dean gets bored and begs Sal to come visit. Answering the beckoning call of his bestie, Sal hitchhikes his way to the mile-high city and where his coming-of-age begins.
While there are many things viewers will find maddening with this picture (more on this in a second), one of the best things about Salles’ direction (in conjuction with Eric Gautier’s breathtaking cinematography) is that viewers get a real sense of how it feels to be on the road – to learn from those adventures and the people you encounter. It can be comical, it can be intense but – best of all – it can be fun. It’s a wild adventure the filmmaker (and author) take us on that, at times, feels like a swirling dream. Salles has also assembled an amazing ensemble cast. Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Terrence Howard, Elisabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi, and Alice Braga all pop up in small but standout supporting roles. You want to see more of their indelible characters; sadly, we can’t, as we’re forced to spend time with unlikeable, unsympathetic Dean and Marylou instead.
Although the novel’s spirit and essence remain beautifully intact, there are several edits made to Keroac’s rich source material (and even to a cut shown at Cannes). A few characters have been either completely omitted or had their stories severely chopped down, leaving viewers to play hopscotch with the narrative jumps. It’s a shame screenwriter Jose Rivera and Salles couldn’t find that organic balance. I must say, for a text that’s considered to be revolutionary, the screenplay takes many a conventional Hollywood route when it comes to storytelling. It makes eye-roll inducing parallels in regards to Dean’s search for identity and his search for his estranged father. You understand this immediately, not only after his dailiances with men, but also with his extra-marital affair with Camille (Kirsten Dunst, who’s dealt short shrift in this film), whom he gets pregnant – twice! He doesn’t know what being a real man or a real father means because he didn’t have one in his life. Gimme a break! And if there’s one thing Kerouac wouldn’t like, it’s being put in a box, which this film does.
The electric ensemble fizzles by the end of the film when they’ve all worn out their welcome. Unfortunately for all involved, one of the best-loved books from the Beat Generation fails to come alive and insipire.
ON THE ROAD plays AFI Fest on November 3. The film opens in limited release on December 21.