On the Road: review

Gregory Smith/Press Image
Sam Riley in 'On the Road'

Walter Salles applies the spirited documentary naturalism of The Motorcycle Diaries to this adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the beat writer’s early 1950s spin on his late 1940s encounters with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and, above all, his magnetic free-spirited friend Neal Cassady, as they intermittently quit New York and travel around America looking for answers to questions unknown or undefined.

It’s hard to fault the travelogue credentials of Salles’s film as Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and the Cassady character, Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), voyage from city to desert and scorched cotton field to snowy prairie. They pick up, drop off and drop in on various folks along the way, from Moriarty’s two on-off women, Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst), to Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge, essentially as Allen Ginsberg) and Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen as William Burroughs).

The film is characterised by quick and frenetic storytelling, an energetic jazz soundtrack, a free and unobtrusive attitude to sex and drugs and performances that are zesty and immediate. Yet On the Road still entombs its era’s zeitgeist more than it lives it. It feels long and tedious, as if we’ve dropped in on someone else’s party without knowing or caring who these folks are.

Partly that’s because Salles mutes the in-the-moment mania of On the Road both by relying heavily on Sal Paradise’s narration and pulling back often to soak up a good-looking cityscape or landscape. Both tics come at the expense of properly examining Paradise and Moriarty’s relationship beyond initial hero worship that fades to reveal a gulf of responsibility and maturity between the two. Hedlund is strong in scenes of musical mania, especially one in which he dances at a club with Stewart, but there’s a lot of sturm und drang to his performance and not a great deal of soul. Riley is more passive, and his feels like a character observed rather than explored.

Salles nods to themes of abandoned women and absent fathers, but these feel like late attempts to offset the vanity and recklessness of the characters by saying something more considered about them. A late shot, too, of Kerouac bashing out the manuscript further complicates the tension between the writing of the book and the book itself, and between the attitudes of the time and the benefit of hindsight. The rebel yell of On the Road now sounds muted and even a little embarrassing.

By Dave Calhoun

On the Road: review details

Length 137 minutes

Country of origin France/UK/USA/Brazil

Year of production 2012

Classification Not available

Opens 13 Jul 2012

Director Walter Salles

Cast Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley


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