Film review: ON THE ROAD, from Built For Speed

Through the adventures of would be writer Sal paradise and his crazed buddy Dean Moriarty, Jack Kerouac’s largely autobiographical 1957 novel On the Road attempted to articulate the restlessness of intellectually ambitious but disillusioned post-war American youth.

The film adaptation by Walter Salles (Motorcycle Diaries) turns the story into a weird bromance as Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund) make their way across the US and Mexico doing drugs, having threesomes, reading Proust and dodging the ugly spectre of adult responsibility.  Along the way they leave behind brain cells and numerous shattered relationships.

At two hours plus and with much of the film featuring guys sitting around in dingy rooms smoking weed and talking pretentious crap, this rambling odyssey is occasionally a slog.  It doesn’t help that the obtuse, quasi-poetic dialogue makes it hard to connect emotionally with the characters. In fact some thought that, because of the book’s unusual prose and plot structure – which mimicked the deconstructed rhythms of bebop jazz – On the Road was un-filmable.

Despite these pitfalls, Salles has done a remarkable job in capturing some of the qualities that make the novel so memorable.  The scenes that intersperse the dope smoking marathon, where Paradise and Dean are literally on the road, feature some stunning vistas of what appears to be the American landscape (some scenes were shot in Canada, Mexico, Chile and Argentina). The film also boasts a sumptuous and detailed production design that utterly immerses us in late 40’s America and comes close to realising Kerouac’s vivid and unique descriptions of the world through which he trekked. There’s also some genuinely funny moments as Sal and Dean crash into mainstream society a little like Withnail and I at the tea room.

The film features a large cast of familiar Hollywood faces who seem to swirl about in this chaotic world although some performances stand out.  Kristen Stewart is memorable as Moriarty’s sexually adventurous girlfriend Marylou who, in complete contravention of TAC warnings, likes pleasuring men while they’re driving.  Kirsten Dunst is luminous as always in a brief but telling role as Moriarty’s wife who feels the fallout of his selfish, waster lifestyle.  Viggo Mortensen also has an amusing turn as the bizarre character Old Bull Lee who was apparently based on William S Burroughs.

Devotees of the novel will undoubtedly lament the omission of or superficial reference to numerous characters and incidents but Salles has at least realised some of the books promise.

As someone who initially dismissed Kerouac and the whole beat scene as an exercise in contrived cool, I actually enjoyed this film enough that I went scurrying back to the novel.


Nick’s rating: Three stars.

Classification: MA 15+

Director(s): Walter Salles

Release date: 27th September 2012

Running time: 137 mins.

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