On the Road
Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by: Jose Rivera (screenplay), Jack Kerouac (novel)
Starring: Sam Riley, Garret Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen
Too much goes wrong in the movie adaptation of On the Road that what it does get right is overshadowed almost completely. In adapting Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat Generation novel, the time period is completely lost amid a cast of venerable modern actors who are cluttered together on the screen as if it would be a felony to exclude someone who was in the book.
At almost two-and-a-half hours, director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera do with this story what many other bad book adaptations do: they drag things on for too long. I haven’t read Kerouac’s book, but as many people I know who’ve read it feared, his stream-of-consciousness writing style does not translate very well. Much of the screenplay is very well-written, to be sure, but the complete lack of atmosphere drains them of much of their power.
Garret Hedlund and Sam Riley have good onscreen chemistry as comrades Dean and Sal, though they are pretty much just thrown together . Dean’s free-wheeling, take-it-as-it-comes lifestyle sends them and one of his many flings (Kristen Stewart) on a joyride across America to search for the Dream. The movie certainly doesn’t shy away from sex scenes, but it is tamed to obtain the R rating.
Taming an infamous American novel about liberation is an irony that many will latch onto. In addition to that, many of the supporting characters become nothing more than celebrity cameos. Steve Buscemi, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen all show up in brief flashes, and vanish almost as quickly. Adams and Mortensen bring the movie to life in what small ways they can, and their absence as the travelers continue their traveling is noticeable.
It seems as if there is a shot of a car traveling down a deserted American road every 10 seconds in this movie. Had Salles removed these cuts, he could’ve easily removed a few minutes off of the arduous run-time.
There are moments that do feel genuine, and it is clear that the time and effort put into capturing some of the beautiful American and Mexican vistas was enormous, but it makes On the Road seem more like a series of sexually-charged postcards than an actual movie. It doesn’t shy away from the homoerotic tension that underlies almost every male friendship in the story. This is brought to startling life in a sequence where Dean and Sal are having sex with two different women, but it is edited to show only their erotic gasps as if they are with each other.
Hedland gives a performance as Dean that deserves serious attention despite the movie’s lackluster quality. It is an unflinching portrait of a man who simply refuses to be pinned down, who is bound and determined to track down the aimless nothings of his own American Dream. He leaves a string of broken relationships in his wake, which makes his final moment of desperate staring hit home. He creates a moment that is genuinely captivating, and then the movie ends.