Film Adaptation: On the Road

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On the Road | Director Walter Salles | Score: 5.2

It’s not that I’m entirely unsympathetic to director Wallter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera and their largely ineffectual adaptation of the Jack Kerouac beat manifesto. In much the same way young male writers would do well to put off their reading of Hemingway until after they’ve already established their own voice, it’s all too damnedably easy to fall into the literary wormhole of Kerouac’s loose, scatty, be-bop prose.

Kerouac’s novel captures the essence of a very particular time and outlook in one’s life, questioning everything of convention, constantly brushing up against the most elemental existentialities and responding to the overwhelming meaninglessness of it all by hitting the open prairie and pouring a good-sized dram of diesel fluid with your best mates, putting the heavy lifting off for another day and instead pondering every nook and cranny of the great, vast openness around you.

This, as you might imagine, is not impossible to examine cinematically, and it’s where Salles’ film achieves its best moments. Where the film goes wrong, where any simple adaptation of Kerouac’s novel falls flat, is in the perspective of the narrator. Kerouac’s novel is clearly set in the past, not from decades away, but far enough removed from the giddy energy of self-discovery that the entire book is soaked in regret and nostalgia, it’s less a giddy travelogue and more of an extended epigraph, a eulogy for beauty lost. Kerouac wasn’t just writing about his wild, mad friends and their adventures together, he was writing about a kind of paradise that can only exist for a very short time and leaves you forever after regretting that you can never return.

Instead of nostalgia, though, we get an endless parade of zoom zoom. When we meet him, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is a young writer in Queens burning for something he can’t quite put his finger on. When he meets the unbridled Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) through his good friend Carlo (Tom Sturridge), he recognizes a star at last to which he can affix his trajectory. In tow with Dean’s 16-year-old wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), Sal and co. travel the countryside on an endless blitz of east/west wanderlust, stopping only occasionally to get menial jobs in cotton fields or freight trains, and, in Dean’s case, having to appease one beautiful paramour or another he’s left in a bad way in his endless travels.

Through a steady stream of side characters – including Dean’s other wife (Kirsten Dunst), the spurned wife of yet another road warrior (Elisabeth Moss), and the William Burroughs stand-in Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) – Dean and Sal’s world is expanded and contracted like a cornerstore on a busy thoroughfare, but nothing, it seems, can keep the boys away from one another for terribly long, or from the endless stretch of highway forever in front of them.

It’s fine in concept, but the film suffers from two kinds of malaise: It’s either too earnest (“My mind is a veritable echo chamber of epiphanies,” the Ginsberg stand-in Carlo squeals to Sal as they hit the town one night), or too scattershot (as the scenes of Sal and Dean begin pile together, they somehow become more – not less — opaque) to be anything much more than tedious. It’s like hearing a particularly self-congratulatory colleague recount the details of their childhood summer camp experiences, all set to a showy jazzed-up soundtrack. The film is filled with scenes of the boys going to wild jazz shows, getting lit up under a sheen of sweat and smoke, and then writing furiously early the next morning, perched on rotted out rooftops overlooking the city, but you rarely feel any of their joy and effusiveness.

There are a few scattered highpoints: Hedlund offers up some kind of approximation of Dean’s hedonist charisma; Mortensen’s slow Burroughs’ drawl is pretty much spot-on; the beleaguered Stewart offers up one of her better performances as the spunky, sharp-witted chanteuse Marylou; and there’s an effective scene with Sal desperate to write but out of paper, resorting to using almost any kind of flat surface, which speaks eloquently to his feverish resolve; but so few of these good pieces fit together, the film still falls shockingly flat.

It’s all too easy to turn the beats into their own iconic caricatures, that’s a good deal of what Kerouac was attempting to do with the novel in the first place, but whereas the film seems only preoccupied with the experiences he and his crew embodied, in his original novel, he understands just how much he and his friends have lost in the aftermath.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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