Walter Salles’s painfully literal-minded On the Road is a chore to watch. Unlike its source material, Jack Kerouac’s sui generis, fictional beatnik opus, Salles’s adaptation is flat-footed and monotonous. Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera counter-intuitively eschew Kerouac’s anecdotal and dizzyingly nimble style of stream-of-consciousness prose to attempt a straightforward, narrative-bound film of it.
The film's narrative is at its best when it veers into impressionistic territory showing us isolated images of an itinerant Sal Paradise’s (Sam Riley) feet or the symbolic road whizzing past him, echoing Kerouac’s immortal bohemian poetry. Unfortunately, Salles and Rivera rarely allow viewers to think for themselves or to appreciate the agony and ecstasy of the nomadic romantic lifestyle. Instead, they superimpose voice-over narration, often taken verbatim from Kerouac’s book, onto these beautifully spare images. Everything in Salles and Rivera’s On the Road is explicitly spelled out, nothing is left to the viewers’ imagination, and no one scene ever feels as alive as Kerouac’s novel.
Sal’s narrative begins and ends with his friendship with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the leader of a pack of vagabond writers. In Salles’s film, Dean is more of an emblematic personality than anyone else. While Dean’s mistreatment of his wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) is ostensibly addressed at the film’s end, Salles and Rivera are ultimately more interested in making viewers pity Dean. By film’s end, Dean’s disillusionment speaks louder than anyone else’s feelings, making Salles and Rivera’s On the Road more of an artistic manifesto than a turbulent account of artistic self-fashioning. According to Salles and Rivera, the end of Sal and Dean’s story is the end of a boho dream.
Sal and Dean travel the country several times over with a couple of friends and lovers, stealing food, doing drugs, and having sex with each other whenever they can. These characters are in the process of creating a new life for themselves, ignoring the mandates of a square society that isn’t, as Sal puts it, as “mad” as Sal and Dean are for experiential pleasure. This makes squares like Galatea Dunkel (Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss), the wife of the dowdy and largely absent-minded Ed Dunkel (Danny Morgan), semi-sympathetic obstructions to Sal and Dean’s free-wheeling good times.
But Kerouac’s story should feel like a long and alternately wonderful and alienating trip, not a joy ride whose cheap thrills are sometimes hampered by the periodic jettisoning of human baggage. Therein lies the main problem with On the Road: Salles and Rivera indulge their protagonists, and then sometimes acknowledge the consequences of their actions, when in fact the book was less programmatic.
The weakest aspect of On The Road is the thoughtless way Sal and Dean are immortalized. Kerouac’s protagonists were never heroes, but rather people who experienced things that radically changed their points of view. Just because these characters periodically say that they want to do exactly what they wound up doing doesn’t necessarily make their actions good, valorous, or un-problematically romantic. Salles and Rivera love On the Road’s characters and world too much to know how to properly represent them.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago.He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Cluband is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal.His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.