On the Road (2012) / Drama-Adventure

MPAA rated: R for strong sexual content, drug use, and language
Running time: 124 min. (original version 137 min.)

Cast: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Tom Sturridge, Kirsten Dunst, Danny Morgan, Viggo Mortensen, Alice Braga, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, Terrence Howard, Coati Mundi
Director: Walter Salles
Screenplay: Jose Rivera (based on the book by Jack Kerouak)
Review published October 21, 2012

On the Road 2012 Walter Salles Jack KerouakAlthough many over the years have concluded that it is a story that couldn't be filmed, Brazilian director Walter Salles Jr. (Paris I Love You, Dark Water) tackles Jack Kerouak's seminal semi-autobiographical work of 1957, "On the Road", with much of the vim and vigor with which he did his similar The Motorcycle Diaries, though with a bit less success.  Kerouak's book chronicled his adventures, along with his best friend Dean, across the United States and later into Mexico as a youth in the late 1940s and early 1950s, recounting each site he would visit and the people, music, and culture, he'd experience throughout the various trips.

Kerouak's alter ego in the story is named Sal Paradise (Riley, Control), a New England intellectual who finds inspiration in those who choose to live their lives with wild abandon, which is exemplified in the hedonistic and somewhat egotistical doings of his best friend, Dean Moriarty (Hedlund, Tron Legacy).  Dean's inability to control his impulses leads him into two sudden marriages, both seemingly conducted at the same time, while doing little to stay committed to either.  It explores the freewheeling sexuality of the main characters, who engage in bisexual trysts, usually after getting hopped up on Benzedrine. 

One might say that one of the main conflicts in the film is in framing Sal as caught between admiration for his friend Sal and wanting to possess him for himself, as many of the other characters have tried and failed to do.  The book's fans might also carp that the character of Dean, in the prose form, is someone that Sal wants desperately to be more like, someone worthy of adulation.  The film version doesn't come close to making Dean an exemplar for white intellectuals, and more, he's the story's most pathetic character, worthy of either derision or an intervention.  If we're wondering at the end why anyone would want to be stuck in a car or hotel room with someone that self-serving, we're at even more of a loss why an entire book would exist singing his praises. 

Jose Rivera (Letters to Juliet, Trade) provides the adaptation of the Kerouak work, and suffice it to say, it's a bit of a futile job to capture why the book has meant so much to so many within a film adaptation.  It's the language --Kerouak's poignant and erudite use of prose, his words and descriptions -- that makes the novel strike chords, and while Rivera does what he can to incorporate actual text from the book when he can, the film mostly plays out as a series of events and places more so than an overall story of America during a certain era and a certain time in a young man's life. 

Whereas the book captures the zeitgeist of a nation during the post-World War II era, both the brilliance and the warts, the film seems more like a collection of events that shaped the life of Kerouak that gave him the inspiration to write the book, especially the drugs, sex, booze, and vice he and his friends would indulge in at nearly every turn.  This does capture the events of the book, and it is quite sumptuous in detail in this regard, but it doesn't really capture the essence.

That's not to say the film isn't worthwhile, as it is still a beautifully shot and well-acted period piece that works as a visual representation of the inspiration for Kerouak's work, and while the book's fans may come away largely disappointed if they come into the film thinking that a movie is going to give the same meaning to them as Kerouak, those that choose to see it as background piece for the book's creation, a biopic of sorts, may find it a less frustrating experience as a whole.

In the end, it's a skillfully made film with good music, costumes, sets, authenticity, and "Beat Generation" bebop & beatnik style, but it should never be regarded as a substitution for the book.  The film depicts aimless people in search of meaning.  The book is about finding meaning in the search itself.
Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo