Sal and Dean and Marylou are ready to go On the Road and the asphalt beckons, but the screen refuses to ride along.
It’s been ever thus with Jack Kerouac’s epochal tome of restless youth. There’s been talk of a film version of On the Road right from the 1957 debut of this Beat Generation classic, including a movie that Kerouac hoped to make starring himself and Marlon Brando.
Brazil’s Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) gets closer than anyone ever has — and not just for the simple reason that he actually got a movie made, after decades of failed attempts by others.
With Sam Riley playing wandering writer Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s surrogate), Garrett Hedlund as his wild man accomplice Dean Moriarty and Kristen Stewart as their femme foil Marylou, Salles and screenwriter José Rivera really get all the madness & sadness & angels along the road to enlightenment.
The film is a handsomely photographed and competently cast work that does justice to Kerouac’s concept of “the purity of the road.” Yet there’s still something maddeningly lacking about it.
I admit to personal confusion and gear-shifting. I liked the film when it premiered at Cannes 2012, but a more recent viewing (after Salles trimmed some 15 minutes in running time) left me feeling considerably cooler to it.
It’s one of those regrettable situations, I think, where the movie is too faithful to the book. In seeking to bring the novel’s fragmented narrative and jazz-influenced dialogue to the screen, Salles and Rivera have somehow tamed it. We still recognize what we see, but we don’t feel it.
Initial excitement leads to ennui as a parade of characters dance before our eyes without making much of an impact.
Beginning in 1947 as shy writer Sal first encounters the mercurial Dean — a bisexual and Benzedrined ex-con described as “too busy for scruples” — the film moves from New York to San Francisco over and over, just like the book.
There are stops and digressions along the way as they engage with a conflicted poet named Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge, actually playing Beat poet Allen Ginsberg), a “teacher” named Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen, actually playing author William S. Burroughs), a sexy siren named Camille (Kirsten Dunst, actually playing Carolyn Cassady, second wife of Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty).
On it rolls, over and over, with these and other pseudonymous pals doing all the sex & drugs & all that jazz in ways that shocked the squares of the 1950s, but that today seem slightly more reality show than rebellious.
This is not to sell the effort short. Salles and Rivera deserve credit for not trying to make Sal and Dean seem like the saints. The film doesn’t sanitize how Sal and Dean treat the women in their lives, which by today’s standards would be considered flat-out abuse. Dean shares his teen bride Marylou with Sal while also being unfaithful to her and to Camille, who was his mistress before becoming his second wife.
A moving picture of On the Road should theoretically be able to lift the manic energy from the page to the screen, yet it paradoxically fails to do so. We hear some of Kerouac’s famous phrases — such as the invocation that begins, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live” — but they only serve to make us want to return to the book, not to see the movie through to its anticlimactic ending.