The Movie Waffler New Release Review - On the Road | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - On the Road

Directed by: Walter Salles
Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Steve Buscemi, Alice Braga, Terrence Howard, Elisabeth Moss

Big screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac's semi-autobiographical 1957 novel.
Kerouac's book has long been considered un-filmable, and justifiably so given the only reason to read "On the Road" is for it's prose. Take away the author's energetic turn of phrase and you're left with some loathsome characters in bland situations. Cinema substitutes gesture for phrase, and in Salles' adaptation the gestures are empty. Novels and films are completely different art-forms, there's no reason to believe they should be compatible. Film-makers of course have an arrogance that compels them to translate every respected piece of prose into their medium. Few are incensed at the thought of a film of "On the Road" but a novelization of "Citizen Kane" would provoke outrage on a Muhammad cartoon scale. So, cinema being the toughest kid in the playground of the arts, we get yet another attempt at a book long thought un-filmable, ultimately rendered nigh on un-watchable.
Of course, Kerouac's novel has already had it's unofficial cinematic translation in Monte Hellman's existential classic "Two Lane Blacktop". Hellman wisely kept his two leads (James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) almost dialogue free, transcending character, instead acting as cyphers unto which we placed our own personalities. No such luxury is afforded by Salles, his characters talk endlessly about absolutely nothing. Within the first few minutes of listening to their beatnik slang you know you're in for a gruelling test of patience.
Thankfully the didactic tone of the novel is shortened to a few voice-over snippets as nobody over the age of  18 wants a lecture on how to live from a stoner kid (funny how when the middle classes take drugs they're "stoners" yet their working class equivalent are "junkies"). Unfortunately we still have to spend over two hours in the company of some truly repugnant individuals. How anyone could romanticize a character like Dean Moriarty (Hedlund), a sociopathic junkie car thief with no respect for anyone or anything, is beyond me. The novel, and indeed all those involved in the beat movement, has long been criticized for it's misogyny. Salles tries to deal with this by giving some time to Stewart and Dunst which really amounts to no more than lip(stick) service.
For a movie about the lure of the road we see very little tarmac and dust. Were it not for the occasional geographical subtitle, our protagonists could well have been driving in a circle. Unlike "Easy Rider", which critiques America's social mores while celebrating it's landscape, "On the Road" features little in the way of what Obama calls "America's great real estate". Dennis Hopper's film makes you immediately want to hit the dusty trails of the American SouthWest. Salles' portrayal of the same locales plays more like an advert for SouthWest Airlines.
At the outset Riley, playing Sal Paradise (a thinly veiled substitute for the author), delivers the, oft-quoted by those who sport black-rimmed glasses and PLO scarves, line "the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing" yet for the next two hours we are subjected to a variety of interactions with dullards whose thoughts are the very definition of commonplace. The only time the movie comes to life is when our "heroes" take in a jazz session. Unlike the know-it-all rich white kids of the beat generation, jazz musicians were the true artists of  mid-twentieth-century America. They may not have professed to know all, but they felt all. 
On the Road (2012) on IMDb 6.4/10