On The Road
Directed by Walter Salles
Screenplay by Jose Rivera
Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen
How long is On The Road? 124 minutes.
What is On The Road rated? R for strong sexual content, drug use and language.
Road To Nowhere:
Director Salles captures text, not spirit of Kerouac.
On The Road, or if you’re following the marketing campaign Kristen Stewart’s On The Road, is based on the generation defining novel by
Jack Kerouac Kristen Stewart. It stars Kristen Stewart as Marylou, a teenage girl who pals around with nobodies Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and her skeevy husband Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). The film also features people of lesser importance than Kristen Stewart, including Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard, and Kirsten Dunst.
Joking aside, the marketing drastically overplays the importance of Marylou to On The Road. While she is one of the more important players, the film does thankfully keep the focus on aspiring writer Sal Paradise (real life Jack Kerouac) and roguish acquaintance Dean Moriarty (real life Neal Cassady, a muse to many Beat Generation authors, Ken Kesey, and others). Like the novel, the movie takes us on their adventures throughout the United States and Mexico having sex, drinking, doing drugs, and meeting random people. Unfortunately, director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) fails to capture what made Kerouac’s 1957 work such a seminal piece of American literature. It is faithful to the text, but to a fault.
Salles treats the material with a needless seriousness. It brings the bodies of the chapters of the book, but not their souls. It shows sex-and-drug fueled parties without imbuing them with the spirit of those moments and thus they become very repetitive and boring. Our heroes run into a number of people, but most of them are interchangeable and bland- though the segment with Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (real life William S. Burroughs) and Adams as his common-law wife Jane (real life Joan Vollmer) is a definite high point of the film. There is little sense of passion and pleasure in these journeys, yet the film doesn’t seem to be condemning the hedonistic actions of these people nor mourning the death of a way of life no longer available. The book is so important and is held in such high regard that Salles doesn’t want to play around with it and opted to make a filmed book instead of a film of the book. On The Road has nice cinematography, and the actors do a more-or-less decent job (including Stewart, whose awkwardness and shyness I’m going to presume comes from Marylou’s inexperience and youth), but it lacks personality; something very dangerous for a book whose primary strength comes from its personality.
The relationship between Sal and Dean similarly fails in this regard. The film understands that Sal and Dean are important, but it fails to express why they have endured for all these decades. Sal sees Dean as a mythic hero, the epitome of freedom, independence, and America, but we never learn why. More than anything, Dean is portrayed as kind of a prick, and pretty much everyone expresses that point of view. But figuring out what Sal sees in him is essential for this movie to work, and it cannot manage that. To be fair, that level of worship is an intangible thing and difficult to articulate, but it’s not impossible. At the very least, there needs to be something more to Dean than “the deadbeat friend who stops by every once in a while.” Near the end, as Sal begins to outgrow Dean, there comes a chance for the film to delve into components such as going back to a “bad friend” like a relapse or realizing that someone is more bad for you than good, but it fails to deliver. The final good-bye between the two, with a disheveled Dean older but no wiser and a cleaned-up Sal, doesn’t elicit an emotional response, and makes it all the more curious why Sal would then tape together reams of paper to produce an epic masterwork in honor of his friend.
The best film I can think of to liken On The Road to would not be 1969’s Easy Rider but 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both are road trip movies based on classic novels featuring a duo of outsiders searching for the American Dream while running into famous actors in cameo roles. But director Terry Gilliam managed to capture the manic madness of Hunter S. Thompson and the “journey, not the destination” concept that made the book so iconic and makes road trips so alluring. The relationship between Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) felt real, and their fun was dizzying and palpable. While there were solemn moments (e.g., the “high-water mark” speech, saying goodbye to Gonzo), they are earned and presented as part of the human experience. Comparatively, On The Road might know the chapters, but it fails to get the book or its context.
It’s difficult for people not around at the time, myself included, to fully understand why the book “On The Road” touched such a nerve with the public- so much so that nearly half a century later, its original manuscript scroll went on a worldwide tour. Whatever value it held and continues to hold is lost in this adaptation. Strangely enough, the biggest crime of On The Road is that it won’t make anyone want to go on the road.