Review: ‘On The Road’ Is A Failed Attempt to Adapt the Unadaptable

By  · Published on December 19th, 2012

Editor’s note: On the Road cruises into limited release this Friday, so put your brains into gear and enjoy this re-run of our Cannes review, originally published on May 23, 2012.

Some books demand adaptation, offering immediate and easily translatable promise as film projects, whether that is thanks to the power of the plot, or characters or certain ideas that would lead to a looser adaptation. Jack Kerouac’s seminal “On The Road” is not one of those books – like the work of James Joyce, the book is explicitly literary, its content inherently bound by its form and its author so fundamentally a writer before a storyteller that many, including myself, believed it to be unadaptable.

In that context, the presence of Walter Salles’ adaptation, imaginatively called On The Road, on the In Competition list here always stood out as an intriguing prospect. How would the director who made that other road movie The Motorcycle Diaries cope with the very specific problem of adapting something that is so explicitly literary? The answer, unfortunately, is not well. For a tale which so obviously values hedonism and free expression, On The Road is ultimately joyless and unengaging, and for a self-discovering road movie to fudge the journey so much and lose almost all lasting meaning is downright criminal.

Instead of a step-by-step experiential journal, charting Sal’s (Sam Riley) journeys across America in search of beatnik ideals, and in the slip-stream of his homo-erotically charged relationship with idolized Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the film simply repeats the same vibrant but soulless hedonistic episodes ad infinitum, without development or revelation.

Along the way, the boys collect other characters from Dean’s 16-year-old bride (Kristen Stewart) to their love-lorn poet friend Carlo (Tom Sturridge), leaving collateral damage like Dean’s second wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst), and indeed almost everyone they ever encounter, as they seek the discovery of the elusive “It.”

Of the cast, only Hedlund is worthy of note, offering a swaggering, but surprisingly deep take on Dean that both reinforces his mystique and offers a human undercurrent that is realized in his final touching resolution, while everyone else is either poor or too sparingly used. In contrast, Sam Riley feels a little out of his depth as hero Sal, and thanks to his lightweight performance its difficult to engage with the one route the audience really has in to sympathetic territory.

Elsewhere, Kristen Stewart again flatters to deceive, offering brief moments of passion, but reverting to her ice-cold angsty Bella shtick for the most part, criminally underplaying a character in Marylou who is supposed to burn with energy.

The film also features lunatic cameos from Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, and Steve Buscemi, which are all accomplished, but are dropped into the narrative too clumsily to make them feel like anything but ill-fitting jigsaw pieces. Indeed, the speed of the narrative, and the way it jumps about gives sparse opportunity for any of the peripheral characters to jostle for focus, and as a result it is impossible to care about any of them.

In book form, each character feels more explored, and as a result, more important. Unfortunately, in the film they are welcomed in and ushered out almost in the same breath, and periods of months fly by in mere seconds. When a key intention is to show how absence and time can’t affect the bond between characters, this is a mistake on which several key character dynamics crumble.

Rather ironically, Salles does seem to recognize the importance that the written word has in On The Road, frequently seating Sal at his typewriter, and littering almost every set with “important” books. But too many blatant close-ups of the books, and too little time spent trying to really channel the free-form spirit of their contents leaves it all hollow.

And even worse than all of the problems is the fact that Salles imbues his film with a smug sense of satisfaction that turns the characters’ early insistence on just how important they are in the New World into an ironic flatness that robs even the best of the bunch (Hedlund’s Moriarty) of an enduring legacy.

Crucially and rather fatally, Salles never invites the audience in: no characters are particularly engaging, so we journey on their adventure as removed voyeurs, as opposed to fellow travelers (which should have been the case). He seems far more concerned with congratulating himself on how well he is adapting the unadaptable, ironically unaware of how far from reality he is.

The cumulative effect of Salles’ episodic hedonistic scenes, in which characters take drugs, drink and smoke heavily, and lose themselves in performance art-like dance sequences is not an affirmation of their discovery of freedom, but a confirmation that they have become as bland as the pasts they all sought to escape.

The moments of success – chiefly in the cinematography of the American landscape that forms a beautiful backdrop to the various jaunts of the story and in Garrett Hedlund’s performance (and indeed the way Dean is adapted from the book) – offer a glimpse of what could have been. But the lows are so miserable, and the overall effect so uninspiring that it is hard to pick the good from the disappointingly poor.

The Upside: Garrett Hedlund is very impressive as agent provocateur Dean Moriarty.

The Downside: It was a poisoned chalice to begin with, but at least we now know that “On The Road” definitely isn’t adaptable. Well, not like this anyway.

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