Is On the Road the first successful attempt to bring Jack Kerouac’s beloved novel to the screen? Depends on who you ask. Fans of the Beat Generation will undoubtedly love this film directed by Walter Salles and adapted by Jose Rivera and those familiar with Kerouac’s mythos might be able to play along. But if you’ve never heard of this group of writers and miscreants you might be eating their dust.
On the Road is occasionally beautiful and entirely too long. Its narrator Sal Paradise Kerouac’s alter ego is played by Sam Riley with a sort of muted watchfulness; he’s an outsider the writer narrating it all along for the ride but the script doesn’t do justice to the tastes of Kerouac’s writing (although we get a taste in some small voiceovers). Garrett Hedlund owns this movie from top to bottom as Dean Moriarty with his buoyant earthy sexuality and total irresponsibility. In reality Dean is the sort of user and mooch that would be a total drain of energy and resources but we see him as Sal does: alive free sensual somehow utterly honest in his protestations of love and honesty despite his constant betrayals.
Dean is absolutely the sex and love object of the movie his pansexual groove attracting and scaring Sal and in a way breaking his heart. Dean also breaks the hearts of Marylou his on-again off-again child bride played by Kristen Stewart; Camille the mother of his children played by Kirsten Dunst; and most movingly Carlo Marx the alter ego of Allen Ginsberg who is played by Tom Sturridge. Sturridge is excellent as the lovelorn poet who’s alternately suicidal and joyous and his scenes with Hedlund are some of the most erotic and moving. The female characters get short shrift especially Marylou who lacks much of a personality; how much of what she does is egged on by Dean and how much is of her own volition? The ballyhoo over her nude scenes were overblown by half; although they’re somewhat sexy they’re overshadowed by all of the sexual tension between the leads.
Two of the most interesting characters in On the Road are Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane. Bull is the alter ego of William S. Burroughs and Jane is Joan Vollmer Burroughs’s common-law wife and the mother of his children. (Vollmer a writer in her own right was accidentally killed by Burroughs.) Jane played by Amy Adams is bizarre and fascinating a wild-haired lady and drug addict and mother of Bull’s children but not much more than that. One could watch an entire movie of Viggo Mortensen playing Bull a sharp-dressed heroin addict who nods off with his child in his arms and strips off his clothes to get in an orgone accumulator he built in his backyard. The movie barely makes a pit stop at their crumbling Louisiana farm and their importance in Sal’s life and the Beat generation is never quite explained.
One might argue that the loopy timeline of the film mimics the unending road trip of Dean’s life but it doesn’t serve the final product. Incorporating more of Kerouac’s writing as voice-overs or something similar would have given it more life the kind of vivacity Kerouac sought out in spades which is why he tolerated Dean’s vagaries for so long. More than most movies it feels like On the Road could have gone in any direction expanding or reducing characters shortening the trips to concentrate on the characters more emphasizing the effects of their missing fathers or not and it’s this wishy-washiness that undermines the movie. It feels much longer than it is. It’s a loving tribute to its subjects and a movie that acts as a showcase for rising stars Hedlund and Riley but it fizzles when it should burn.