Release Date: 12th October, 2012
Director: Walter Salles
Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Sturridge, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Terence Howard, Elizabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi
Jack Kerouac’s seminal, autobiographical, 1950s text is brought to the screen at long last by Walter Salles, a man who should know a thing or two about filming on the roads if his masterful The Motorcycle Diaries is anything to go by. An aesthetically sumptuous work, his treatment of the novel never quite lives up to the promise of its arresting opening act, proving an ultimately distancing affair that fails to capture the essence of the Beat Generation and the disaffection driving the man who gave them their sobriquet.
Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Kerouac’s alter-ego and our narrator, finds himself spiritually seduced by the charismatic hedonist Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his young wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Inspired in a haze of jazz, booze and opiates, Paradise embarks on an East to West trip across the states in search of himself and the real America – a freedom of soul and ideas.
The initial vibrancy of the piece, accomplished with Kerouac’s energetic prose manifest in Riley’s hard-boiled voice-over, some sharp editing and claustrophobic, tightly-framed handheld camera-work, gives way to a more elegiac treatment when our boys hit the road; there’s a definite hint of the Malicks in how Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier shoot the great expanses. It’s here the picture falters. The road movie, by its very nature episodic, requires a potency and soul to lift it from the mundane. Sequences such as Sal’s cotton-picking sojourn and romance with Terry (Alice Braga), and a visit to William S. Burroughs stand-in Old Bull Lee’s (Viggo Mortensen) Algiers home meander, and all too briefly, where they should bristle.
Hedlund does well as the self-destructive Dean, while Riley’s withdrawn performance as a guy newly in love with a lifestyle and possibly the man through whom it was introduced convinces, if fails to inspire. Stewart is less impressive as Marylou, offering little indication as to why these two men would, in their different ways, be so besotted by her. The rest of the cast is filled with competent, if slight, cameos; only Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of the Allen Ginsberg-inflected Carlo Marx sticks in the memory, the others simply passing through the narrative with scant consequence which, though similar to the original text, simply doesn’t engage in cinema.
Too often focusing on the melancholy and unable to fully transpose the punchy, scatter-gun majesty of Kerouac’s writing onto the screen, On The Road, though a gorgeous work to look at, and not without flashes of interest or the occasional smattering of joie de vivre, can’t overcome the blandness of much of its running time. It might be an idea to just pick up the book again instead.