[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. On the Road opens today in limited release.]
Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road is a novel that inspired a generation of restless young men and women to break free from their comfort zones, broaden their horizons, and look to the majesty of America. Walter Salles‘ On the Road is a film adaptation that will inspire a generation of lazy high school kids to watch the movie instead of reading the book. Salles snaps up the words of Kerouac’s novel, but not their spirit. The movie shouldn’t simply regurgitate the book because adaptation should be a work of inspiration and not imitation. But there’s nothing inspired about Salles’ picture. It’s safe where it should be dangerous. It’s lugubrious when it should be explosive. It’s derivative when it should be daring. Despite glimmers of an emotionally moving story, On the Road rarely has the energy to get up and bravely venture forth beyond the plot constraints of a book that’s not driven by its plot.
In its broad strokes, On the Road explores the relationship between aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and the freewheeling Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). To become a better writer, Sal decides to crisscross the country. One trip he goes solo, another trip he goes with Dean and Dean’s ex-wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), and on another trip he and Dean head south to Mexico. There are brief interludes at various destinations where the characters drink, get high, and screw around, but no one can ever settle down when the road is calling.
But there’s no wisdom or insight to be found on the road in On the Road. Kerouac’s novel inspires a sense of wanderlust in the reader. It makes us want to leave our stolid lives behind, and dive into the unknown because we know we’ll be richer for the experience. But Salles’ picture has all the urgency of a slideshow where your friends show you pretty pictures of landscapes and tell you of the crazy times they had. We’re not a participant in their travels, nor are we particularly fascinated by the events they experience. Film should transport us into other worlds, and On the Road wants to keep us in our seats so we can watch characters be physically transported.
Their transportation is rarely emotional or spiritual. On the Road may have been an impossible adaptation because the energy is in Kerouac’s syntax and vocabulary. He’s constantly taking literary chances, and when he fails he does so in a big brash fashion (like when he tries to re-create the power of jazz by writing effusively about it; if Jazz’ power could be reproduced through description alone, it would cease to be powerful). Salles hardly takes any chances beyond letting his camera drift listlessly alongside the characters. Occasionally, he’ll find a beautiful shot like cutting across landscapes and weather through a unique camera angle. But it’s almost as if Salles is trying to copy his previous film, The Motorcycle Diaries, but the style no longer clicks. Curiously, there are flashes when Salles and his characters cut loose and intimacy creeps into the picture. We feel the body heat and the passion as Dean and Marylou drunkenly dance at a party. Sadly, these moments are few and far between. Without verve and vigor, On the Road is about as electric as a liquor commercial.
Salles receives no help from his cast despite having such talented forces as Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, and Kirsten Dunst in supporting roles. The script never spends enough time with the Old Bull Lee (Mortensen) and his wife Jane (Adams) or Dean’s wife, Camille (Dunst). They’re merely road markers on the languid journey of Sal and Dean. At least Riley’s raspy voice adds some color to Sal, but there could perhaps be no greater miscasting than Hedlund as Dean Moriarty. Salles isn’t obligated to directly copy the character from the book, but Dean is written as a restless and rambunctious figure because his personality fits with the travels Sal hopes to take. Through Hedlund’s performance, Dean is nothing but a cool cat who occasionally jumps around. The opening and closing narration (quoting from the novel) present Dean Moriarty as a quasi-mythical figure who could drive the timid to follow his lead. Hedlund’s Moriarty is a laid-back guy who’d like to bum a smoke or borrow a few bucks. As for Stewart, it’s tough to say she’s miscast since her role has been “expanded” in that Marylou is in more of the story, but her role is just to be a sex object.
These kinds of expansions, which also include pushing Dean’s bisexuality and the unrequited homosexual love of his friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), don’t add to the story or the world (although they will prove invaluable to teachers hoping to spot which of their students only saw the movie). A storyteller can’t add to his story when he doesn’t know what the story is meant to convey. On the Road is a case study in showing how a novel’s setting, plot, characters, and dialogue can be emulated in a movie, but still be devoid of the magic, overwhelming, and indefinable “IT.”