Let’s face it: making a film of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is something of a fool’s errand, which explains a half-century of aborted attempts. A two-hour movie must conflate the sprawl of the novel’s mileage (and the social history it has come to represent), as well as Kerouac’s dense description and singing prose.
Under the auspices of executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, screenwriter José Rivera and director Walter Salles at last cinematically retell the tale from Kerouac’s thinly veiled autobiographical novel, published in 1957. In it, Kerouac surrogate Sal Paradise comes to know rule-breaking, drug-taking sexual lightning rod Dean Moriarty as the pair travel with, to, and from each other, be-bopping around America and Mexico in the late 1940s.
The novel has not so many significant plot points but plenty of personalities based on real people, including Moriarty (Neal Cassady), Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), Marylou (LuAnne Henderson), and Jane (Joan Vollmer). Cumulatively, they help to define a time of shifting social and cultural mores, with men determined to feel (and sow) their oats and women forced to the background, looking for autonomy wherever they can get it in a man’s world.
Rivera and Salles previously collaborated on The Motorcycle Diaries, itself based on a famous memoir (that of Ernesto “Che” Guevara), and they’re about as credible a team as one could hope for at the present moment, though certainly more tasteful than Kerouac himself would have liked. With all due respect, Salles made his own pilgrimage following the burnt-rubber tracks of Kerouac and organized a Beat Generation seminar for the actors before hopscotching around Canada, America, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico to shoot the picture.
The results are hopelessly mixed. Salles’ understated style remains appealing, but it can also be at odds with Kerouac’s romantic vision of “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night."
This On the Road has more of a dispassionate “fly-on-the-wall” feel. All those who have ever been on a guided tour that went faster than they would like will recognize the frustration of the film’s elision, which necessarily forces the story into unnatural rhythms. With his jazz-influenced approach, Kerouac could make it all right on the page, contracting and elaborating at will, but Rivera and Salles must keep plunging onward.
Sam Riley as Sal and Kristen Stewart as Dean’s horny sort-of wife Marylou come off as credible if dull, while Tom Sturridge adds some much-needed passion as pining poet Carlo. Cameos by well-known actors (Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard) distract, but Garrett Hedlund convincingly holds the picture’s center as Dean, whose high-on-life demeanor here masks an existential panic of aging out of youthful irresponsibility and into adult oblivion.
Salles’ On the Road arrives at a handsome but reductive decorousness. This pretty period-pictorial companion piece to the novel fatally misses out on the brain-firing raw buzz that Kerouac felt and passed on to his readers, succeeding much more at capturing the novel’s emotional disappointments than its evocation of freedom through sex, drugs, jazz, the written word, and unscheduled road-trip adventure.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]