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ON THE ROAD – The Review

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ON THE ROAD is an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel which is considered one of the greats but those who love the book will be unsatisfied with this film adaption and those who have not read it may wonder what all the fuss is about. In ON THE ROAD we first meet Sal (based on Kerouac and played by Sam Riley) in the 1940’s suffering from writer’s block and hanging out with his friend Carlo (based on Alan Ginsberg and played by Tom Sturridge) in various beatnik dives. Things turn around when he meets Dean Moriarty (based on Neil Cassady and played by Garrett Hedlund), a free spirit with a penchant for weed and three-way sex. They leave the city, along with Dean’s 16-year old squeeze Marylou (Kristen Stewart) to seek freedom, life, and love on the open road.

While the book ON THE ROAD may have spoken for a generation, this film version is meager and tedious. We understand that Sal and Dean enjoy each other’s company, but that’s about all we find out about them. They develop none of the complexities of other on-the-road couples, like Thelma and Louise or Bonnie and Clyde. There isn’t much chemistry. For two radical intellectuals with exciting futures ahead of them (though neither Kerouac nor Cassady made it to 50), they have limited conversational ability, and everything they say is generated by the plot, the conventions of the situation, or standard platitudes. Nothing they say seems startling or poetic. Much of the problem is the casting. Dean Moriarty, a magnet attracting men as well as women, is fine but anyone would shine opposite Garrett Hedlund’s Sal. All blank-faced and boyish, reciting chunks of the novel in ponderous voiceover, Hedlund delivers a deeply uninteresting performance that makes you ponder all the better young actors out there that could have given this part some heft. Surprisingly, it’s Kristen Stewart, trashed across the board for her anemic Twilight performances, who most brings ON THE ROAD to life. A scene where she sexually services the two men in the car simultaneously is joyful when it could have been icky and I wish her role had been larger. Amy Adams, Terrence Howard, Steve Buscemi , Alice Braga, Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen (as William S. Burroughs) all stop by for showy dramatic scenes that don’t add up to much.

ON THE ROAD has always been ranked as one of the top novels of the 20th century and has inspired numerous readers to take The Great American Road Trip. It has been waiting to be made into a movie for over 50 years so it’s a shame this long-gestating adaption (filmed mostly in Canada!?) isn’t better. There is some beautiful cinematography in ON THE ROAD. As we follow these hippy pioneers past transcendent scenery we see forests, plains, wide-open landscapes, and cityscapes. There is a nice soundtrack and a strong sense of the late 1940s but the movie is unfortunately a much-too-literal adaptation of the novel without any of its spirit. What was uplifting and inspiring about Kerouc’s written word fails to translate to the big screen. More noble failure than bad cinema, I can’t quite recommend ON THE ROAD.

2 1/2 of 5 Stars

ON THE ROAD opens today, March 22nd, in St. Louis at Landmark’s Tivoli Theater

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