Jack Kerouac’s beat masterpiece, On the Road, is often considered one of the most influential works of contemporary literature. Its road trip narrative set against a backdrop of jazz, drugs, sex, and art has become a mantra for many seeking a path outside the conformity of modern society. Oddly enough, it’s never been made into a movie, though Nick Nolte played Kerouac’s buddy Neil Cassady to John Heard’s legendary author in an exploration about the book’s writing entitled Heart Beat. Now, Walter Salles, the director behind The Motorcycle Diaries and the Oscar nominated Central Station, working from a script by Jose Rivera, brings the tome’s telling themes to life. On the downside, Kristen Stewart is along for the ride as primary love interest Marylou. She’s not as horrible as she’s been in the past, but with Twilight the benchmark of said badness, she’s still this adaptation’s weakest link.
In this semi-autobiographical tale, Kerouac is now Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), who befriends a free spirit scribe named Dean Moriarty (a Cassady substitute, played by Garrett Hedlund). Initially, they pal around and smoke pot. When Dean heads off to Denver on an assignment, Sal decides to join him, hoping it will cure his own writer’s block. Next, our hero takes up with a woman called Terry (Alicia Braga) and the two travel out to California to work in the cotton fields there.
Eventually, Sal reconnects with Dean and a girl named Marylou (Stewart) and they head off to see the country, Dean sometime trading favors with men for cash. Along the way, they run into Dean’s ex, Camille (Kirsten Dunst) who’s had his baby. They also meet up with a madcap mentor named Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen, channeling William Burroughs), have sex with prostitutes in a Mexican brothel, and finally settle down to a semi-normal life. Sal then decides to write a book about his adventures on the road.
On the Road is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s very good at times. It does a decent job of capturing the look and feel of Kerouac’s time and the performances — including Ms. Stewart’s — match what Rivera’s script gives the characters to do. Naturally, Dean Moriarty becomes the center here as his arc is the most complex and complete. He goes from hustler, having dalliances with men like Steve Buscemi’s Tall Thin Salesman, to a quasi-concerned family man. Sal’s story is a bit more sedate. He’s the observer, the one drinking in all the events (he even begs out of a three way in order to hear the rest of the participants having sex through the walls) like the voyeur the narrative needs him to be. Elsewhere, minor sequence with Mortensen and Amy Adams argue for Salles’ eye for talent and how to use it.
No, the issue here goes to the very heart of adapting famous books into films, to wit, you will never be able to capture the visual structures and settings produced in the mind’s eye via some physical realization of same. On the Road is a bible for many from a certain generation, as beloved as The Catcher in the Rye or A Confederacy of Dunces. Salles can’t unearth that, can’t recreate the feeling of finding oneself in Kerouac’s prose. So it instead goes for an decent recreation of the events depicted, hoping you will unearth something significant in the vignettes presented. What we miss, however, is the energy of self discovery that Kerouac brought to the book. All the pieces — the music, the memories, the mindless hedonism — were supposed to spark a kind of awakening in readers. Here’s it’s mostly a period piece show.
Back in the ’80s, when famed post-modern genius Francis Ford Coppola purchased the rights to On the Road, he quickly realized that it would be near impossible to bring the book to life onscreen. Salles tries, but in the end, only offers up a superficial take on the material, not something to really sink our soul into.