There’s a built in problem when crafting the film adaptation of a novel that has been widely revered for generations. Quite simply the expectations will just be too damn high, however that doesn’t stop some filmmakers from trying, as the most iconic text of the Beat Generation is now being put on the screen in On the Road.
Lifted from the pages of the iconic novel of Jack Kerouac, we join Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) an aspiring New York writer who chances upon a meeting with the charming ex-con Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his girl, the seductive and free spirited Mary Lou (Kirsten Stewart). As they are determined not to live a buttoned down and boring life, the two new friends cut loose and hit the road with Marylou determined to experience what they felt was life. Hungry for a sense of freedom and adventure they head out into the world looking for new experiences and most importantly themselves.
Admittedly and astoundingly, not having read the novel, I am spared the vitriolic feelings towards knowing exactly what got left out, but I do know it’s almost patently impossible for everything from any book’s pages to hit the screen. Having said that, it’s ultimately an interesting film that isn’t without some charm in spite of the obvious challenges that lay in front of it
Having Walter Salles in the director’s chair was actually a fairly smart choice as many beats from the film felt lifted from his previous efforts in The Motorcycle Diaries from 2004. He effectively fine tuned the road trip film as it’s a well shot and good looking movie that treats the open desert highway and the flop houses slums of New York with the same amount of reverence. Through the use of light and shadow to maximum effect it lets the audience know when the dirt, the passion and the sex is operating at full effect. In many ways the film feels like it rambles from depraved act to depraved act be it sex, drugs or anything else in-between. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it can make things feel a bit too chaotic. Stories like this are supposed to have a certain beat to it, and while Salles puts a compelling product on up on the screen, he never quite finds what it’s actually supposed to be ,even with a cast that comes through with some reasonably solid performances.
Sadly the weakest performance in the entire film comes from our defacto leading man. Sam Riley’s Sal Paradise often feels like he is just getting swept along with the narrative as no real effort at character development was ever made at making him interesting or even likable, he was simply there. Having an underwritten lead character may work in a novel where there is are simply more pages available to work with but in a feature film you’ve got to have your lead get to the point and in a hurry, being aimless on screen simply doesn’t work.
Garrett Hedlund does a surprisingly good job in more iconic Dean Moriarty role. His restless ex-con who loves and leaves people at every turn reeks of a true personal desperation to seem interesting. He successfully fills his eyes with a mix of street savvy and naiveté at the same time and it works to perfection as you get sucked into the very desperation that he puts across on screen.
As the muse Mary Lou, Kirsten Stewart actually came through with a very brave performance and after her run in the Twilight films that propelled her to superstardom she quite literally bares it all as she dove head first into the sleaze, the sweat and the sex that this material was dripping with.
There’s a cavalcade of familiar faces like Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Alice Braga, Elizabeth Moss and Terrence Howard in some smaller roles, but at the end of it all not enough people in this ensemble stand out enough to make the film a memorable one.
There’s isn’t a single thing about On the Road that is honestly bad, but by the end of it you won’t be able to shake the fact that there is something missing from this adaptation. It might be in the book somewhere. Then again, it might not. It’s still an interesting effort for what it is.