THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"ON THE ROAD"
Jack Kerouac's “On the Road” is a book that's been beloved over several generations. Judging solely from Walter Sallas' new film adaptation, you'd never know why. This is the kind of book that probably shouldn't be turned into a movie. Much of its power is inextricably tied into Kerouac's personality and his writing style. Trying to capture his voice in another format is like watching an Elvis impersonator or going to see that Beatlemania show; sure, it's a close approximation, but the only true joy you're going to get will come from the genuine article.
Sam Riley plays Sal Paradise (a character based on Kerouac), a young writer who falls under the spell of Dean Moriarty (a Neal Cassady type, played by Tron: Legacy's Garrett Hedlund). Dean is a genuine hipster who loves to party, smoke weed, and explore his sexual freedom. He has a girlfriend, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), whom he loves, or at least thinks he loves. The three hop in a car for a cross-country trip, with Dean acting as ringmaster and Sal documenting the entire escapade. Along the way, they meet a variety of colorful characters who expand their consciousness. But Sal eventually sees that, despite outward appearances, Dean is not the carefree rebel he presents himself as, and their friendship starts to come apart at the seams.
On the Road tries to capture the free-wheeling vibe of the time, but in doing so, it loses the very poignancy it seeks to create by rendering itself formless. A pot and booze-fueled road trip may very well become a big mental blur to its participants, but that doesn't mean the film has to be one too. There is no real plot here; On the Road is essentially just a series of haphazardly edited moments which never tie together into something meaningful. It doesn't feel like the trip has any real significance, despite Sal's constant, impassioned reportage of it. He proclaims that all kinds of enlightenment is taking place, and we have to take his word for it because we don't see any of it for ourselves. In fairness, the movie does make you feel as though you've just woken up from an all-time bender: disoriented, confused, and wondering why you just put yourself through it.
Stronger performances might have helped sell the disjointed pace and tone. Regrettably, though, these characters aren't charismatic, they're obnoxious. Garrett Hedlund gives a manic performance playing an admittedly manic character, but it's too much. Dean is neither magnetic nor fascinating. He is repellant, and we can't fathom why Sal would be so enamored of him. Then again, Sal is kind of off-putting, as well, with his incessant fawning over Dean and euphoric enjoyment of events with little genuine substance. Both men additionally share a fondness for speaking in a hipster patter that becomes grating after a few minutes. Much has been made of Kristen Stewart's appearance in On the Road, so different is it from the tween romance of the Twilight saga that made her famous. She engages in a threesome and even momentarily appears nude, yet makes almost no impression whatsoever. In her hands, Marylou is a personality-free enigma. Spending two hours in a car with these folks is not a pleasant experience.
The cameo players fare best. Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, and Viggo Mortensen all appear in small roles as people the central trio meet up with along the way. In every instance, the supporting characters prove more interesting than the leads, making us wish the movie had been about them.
By the time On the Road reached its conclusion, I felt like I'd been bludgeoned. Sallas seems to know what he wants to do, but doesn't know how to do it. The movie is so disjointed and bombastic – so, pardon the pun, all over the map - that it becomes tedious to endure. High school students are often reluctant to read books like “On the Road” that are assigned to them by their English teachers; many seek out a movie version instead. One look at this great big mess of a film will have them begging for reading homework. And adults who hold Kerouac's work near and dear to their hearts? Prepare to be flabbergasted.
( 1/2 out of four)
On the Road is rated R for strong sexual content, drug use and language. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.
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