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The Kerouac classic finally hits the silver screen, but not even a star-studded cast can keep this one from running out of gas....
MPI / 124 Minutes / 2012 / Rated R/ Street Date: August 6, 2013
It was never going to work. A lot of high-profile folks contributed to this first cinematic adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s generation-defining novel, and it’s clear that these actors and behind-the-scenes contributors share a fervent passion for the subject matter at hand, but everything stays squarely in the middle of the road in Walter Salles’ On the Road. It often provides fine illustrations of some of the book’s most iconic moments, but as a narrative whole, it dissipates with every passing moment.
I balk at the perspective that Kerouac’s book is ‘unfilmable’ (this kind of terminology never kept David Cronenberg from adapting Naked Lunch, Cosmopolis, or Crash), but while Salles’ movie certainly captures the mood and look of the 1950s it chronicles, the spirit of Kerouac’s wandering prose is left feeling distant and disorientingly solipsistic: on the page, his work crackles with drunken immediacy, but as transposed to screen, it feels somehow vacuous.
It drums up grander philosophical concerns about Kerouac’s work and what it means to the America of the 20th century, really. From one perspective, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are indicative of a blossoming independent spirit that blew open doors of perception and opportunity; from another, Kerouac’s book inspired multiple generations of drunks and worthless ramblers. The actors in On the Road – Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart – are handsome, adventurous, and hungry for the experiences of the world, but Salles and his team seem unsure about how to manifest this world perspective as a cinematic theme.
In short, On the Road is just kind of dull. This is not a terrible film, and when it really connects with Kerouac’s novel, it offers a rose-tinted glow that is irresistibly nostalgic, but there’s a reason the movie never ventured past a nominal arthouse release: there simply isn’t all that much to it. It’s an easy movie to admire, but a difficult one to find warmth within. I doubt Jack would have thought all that much of it.