Never reaching a wide theatrical release, most of the U.S. is probably unaware of director Walter Salles’ adaptation of famous Beat generation novel “On the Road.” Salles’ experience doing “The Motorcycle Diaries” seems like a perfect fit for Jack Kerouac’s story, since both stories inspire a lust for wandering the world and experiencing a variety to life, but “On the Road” does not depict the nomadic love as well as in “The Motorcycle Diaries;” instead, the film focuses on growing up as seen through a friendship of two philosophical young men destined for very different lives.
Kerouac wrote himself as Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a young, curious writer. Introduced by his friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge playing Allen Ginsberg), Sal meets fellow thoughtful life explorer Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Sal quickly becomes immersed in Dean’s lifestyle on the constant move; Dean has a wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and then a second wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) along with a string of affairs because he can’t be tied down to any one place or person. Motivated by Dean, Sal decides to travel across the country to see life outside the city. He hitchhikes to see Dean and makes travelling a regular part of his life along with doing typical migrant work. He always returns to safety with his mother (Marie-Ginette Guay), but Sal loves adventures and partying with his friends, including drinking and taking drugs with Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen as William S. Burroughs). Sal is eventually inspired to make something of his life by writing his story, while Dean continues to float between women and jobs.
For fans of the novel, the film doesn’t even come close to being worthy of the book. “On the Road” is the most famous of the Beat works because it completely captures the culture of the group, the jazz, the drugs (mostly Benzedrine), the sexuality, the wandering, and the freedom. The film just doesn’t have that level of spirit. It does competently tell the story of Sal and Dean, but it loses the magic of the period. The film feels almost timeless, whereas the point of the novel is a distinct time and generation; the story disintegrates into an average but more realistic buddy road trip film. Plus, it is always easier to appreciate the beauty of the work of a writer when in book form rather than relying on quoted narration in a film.
As “The Motorcycle Diaries, part 2,” “On the Road” does feature some exquisite scenic shots and imagery suited for a high quality traveling story. What is missing is a noticeable love or appreciation from the main character. Sal seems entirely motivated by Dean instead of by his philosophies and dreams. The point comes across at the ending when we see how far apart Dean and Sal have grown as they’ve matured, or rather, as one has matured and the other has stayed the same. Sal’s experiences have taught him about life, but Dean still wanders in search of something to tether him to the world.
With no shortage of terrific cameos from stars playing eccentric roles (Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Terrence Howard, Elizabeth Moss), it’s easy to see the potential in “On the Road.” An Oscar-type film based on a hugely popular novel, “On the Road” drew in some great talent and vision but falls short of Kerouac’s inspiration. The only two kinds of people who will watch it: those that love the book and Kristen Stewart’s fans looking forward to seeing her breasts (certainly not her acting skills). Though it doesn’t do justice to the source material or have worthwhile performances from its three main stars, “On the Road” is a pedestrian but watchable drama that fails to sparkle.
Rating for “On the Road:” C+
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