On the Road
Directed by Walter Salles. Starring Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen 16 cert, limited release, 124 min
ON THE ROAD at the multiplex? Now we’ve seen everything. Since 1957 an entire constellation of stars, writers and film-makers (lately Brad Pitt, Joel Schumacher, Ethan Hawke, Colin Farrell, Gus van Sant, Allen Ginsberg) have laboured and lobbied to adapt Jack Kerouac’s freewheeling, semi-autobiographical road trip for the big screen.
Among these acolytes, Francis Ford Coppola has loved longest and best. He acquired the rights to the book in 1979 and subsequently hired all kinds of every folk to make it work. In 2006 Coppola had the smarts to bring Walter Salles onboard. The director of the similar Motorcycle Diaries makes his mark here with fiercely lit landscapes and a gorgeous rhythm. Salles’s On the Road is never better than when it is on the road, pounding the streets, hitching a ride and driving around naked.
Off-road, away from the pretty motifs, the film descends into a series of loosely connected vignettes. Inspired by his new carefree chum Dean Moriarty (a heavily romanticised Neal Cassady), Sal Paradise (Kerouac ersatz) leaves the house of his grim-faced mother for a series of encounters with women, drugs and jazz. Voiceover chunks, ahoy.
Salles, the big-hearted humanist behind Central Station, softens Kerouac’s Sal. Minor details are tweaked (he’s no longer depressed by his divorce but by the death of his father) and Sam Riley brings a lost puppy look to the role. Garrett Hedlund, as Moriarty, lays on the blabbermouth charisma. Show- stealer Viggo Mortensen channels William Burroughs with relish.
None of this, alas, amounts to anything that looks or feels like a proper movie. Regardless of the book’s place in the literary canon, the Beats just don’t do structure. Perhaps its a testament to Kerouac’s mastery of his own screwy milieu that all attempts to impose order on the material are doomed to fail. Divorced from the author’s playful, alliterative narration, Salles struggles to find a purpose in its aimless hoboism.
More problematic is the supposed appeal of Moriarty, whose brand of maverick charm extends to ditching children, friends and wives, including the weary, exasperated Camille (Kirsten Dunst). Time hasn’t been kind to one-sided sexual liberation. One wonders, indeed, how Kerouac ever managed to persuade us that this callous, parasitic misogynist was a “Holy Goof”?
The 1940s setting doesn’t make it any easier to watch men passing around a stoned, perennially naked teenager (Kristen Stewart, working hard in a thankless role). It doesn’t help that the sex scenes are queasily softcore: if you wonder what Edward and Bella’s wedding night would have looked like in tenement housing with a second dude, then this is the movie for you.
“I think of Dean Moriarty”. So do we; he’s a jerk in an unsatisfactory film.